The lower environs of the Upper East Side are not generally where you will find me on a Saturday morning. Since downtown tends to offer most of my not-to-miss destinations these days, it’s easy to forget this discreet and historied part of New York.
The east 60s and 70s offer an interesting array of cultural outposts, from international consulates, to the Central Park Zoo, to some of the most elegant townhomes you will see in the city. The stunning Frick mansion sits at East 70th and 5th, offering a glimpse into a well-heeled past.
I was on this rare visit to the neighborhood because it was a rainy Saturday. And rainy Saturdays are best for cozy brunches and museums. Our afternoon agenda included The Frick and the Cooper-Hewitt, which current is showing the most glamorous Jazz Age exhibit.
But first, brunch. It’s in this part of town, in the thick of New York’s best art museums, that we recommend to you a restaurant that could easily escape your eye if you were headed to a more southern neighborhood.
Altesi is straight ahead, classic, Upper East Side Italian. It is also one of the more memorable meals we have had since launching in New York, and we are indebted to its owners, first for their charm (a warmer couple you won’t meet in the city) and second for the tradition of exceptional Tuscan fare that makes you understand why they were serving over 160 people for Mother’s Day brunch the next day.
The room is elegant, with white table cloths and burnt orange chairs that all lead to an intimate garden where you know exclusive parties are held as often as possible in warmer months. The staff is welcoming and perfectly present—always around but never obtrusive. A lunch on a Saturday offers a very signature East Side scene; families (with boys in blazers and ties, and girls in dresses), couples, friends, all of an East Side set, to be sure, but all friendly enough that the scene is not for being seen.
Three words: fresh, homemade pasta. The menu is full of it, and we recommend ordering more than one. We chose from both the brunch and the lunch menus (why limit oneself on a Saturday?) and developed favorites from both.
The bufala mozzarella arrives with fresh tomatoes and a savory basil drizzle that makes a great starter. Artichokes fried “in the Roman Jewish style” are like warm cushions with subtle flavor.
The number of egg dishes is impressive, and we opted for a tried and true Italian classic: the carbonara, with its marriage creamy egg and cheese with pancetta and fettucine. If there’s a better one in town, we haven’t had it.
Others in our group enjoyed the scallops (perfectly light, tart, savory and sweet on a bed of apple, quinoa and cauliflower) and the tagliolini verde (shrimp over delicious spinach pasta with an inventive leek and cherry tomato sauce). The entrees were stunning, and their flavor matched their good looks.
The desserts are just as decadent as the entrees, with a crème brûlée trio that leaves you wondering which one wins. (It’s the espresso one.) The chocolate souffle is light and delivers a perfect sweetness. And the espresso and cappuccino carry Italy’s tradition of high quality coffee proudly, making the perfect end to an outstanding meal.
The Bitches say: Five flutes. A harmony of staff, space, and food is hard to achieve at any restaurant. Altesi wins with all three.
Altesi is open daily from 8:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.