First and foremost, I am all-in on anything that carries the description, "Oysters & Italian Wine Bar." And secondly, if there is one thing in this world that that exceeds my joy of food, it's my love for history; and with its setting oddly situated within a six-foot wide 19th-century alleyway, Virgola simply demanded a visit.
I truly didn't know what to expect as we entered Virgola through a massive and ornate wrought-iron gate adorned with an array of love-locks of various shapes and sizes. For those who are unaware, the tradition of love-locks began in Rome with the ritual of sweethearts writing their names upon padlocks and affixing them to the Ponte Milvio Bridge. Once done, the key is thrown away as a symbol of their unbreakable love. And here at Virgola, it is obviously a tone-setter.
Within moments of our arrival, a handsome gentleman approached us with an air of undeniable hospitality and introduced himself as Joseph Marazzo, owner of Virgola.
It took a moment or two for my eyes to adjust to the low lighting and dark brick walls which still retained the feel of its former life as an alley. Many, I presume, would be scratching their heads at that point. Me? I got it. I totally "got it".
In fact, I "got it" long before Joe Marazzo explained that the inspiration for his decor was in romantic deference to, "...those dark side streets in Rome that you'd pass through while riding your motorino at night. A dark, intimate place, definitely more Rome than Venice." And by all accounts, he replicated that feel exactly.
The space exudes intimacy - dim lights holding tangled knots of love-locks, red leather banquettes where cuddling is more a necessity than an option, and a playlist filled with smokey voices inciting romantic dalliance.
The menu at Virgola is a study in simplistic pleasure. Marazzo drew his menu's inspiration from a day he once spent eating on a beach in Sabaudia, Italy. The experience was so moving, it induced him to fulfill his dream of what was to eventually become, Virgola.
But don't mistake the simplicity of the menu as uninspired. Quite the contrary, Marazzo has devised his menu with great care and he prides himself on offering the freshest seafood available and top-notch pairings of seafood, salumi, formaggi and insalate with Italian varietals.
When it comes to eating oysters, it's all about texture and clarity of flavor. The Island Creek oysters were plump and juicy and emitted a delicate salinity followed by a smooth, buttery finish. The Montauk Pearls by comparison, contained a more definite saltiness, not overtly mind you, but not unlike the taste that resides on one's lips after traveling through a morning mist at sea. Mysterious, yet delightful.
The oysters were served with three distinctive and tantalizing toppings to utilize if you so desire - a zippy cocktail sauce, a champagne vinegar and wonderfully thinly shaved horseradish.
The shrimp were fresh and ample, and the cocktail sauce they were served with emitted crisp overtones of cilantro.
The ceviche was exquisite. An amazing blend of spices and large, sweet chunks of mango intersecting the luxurious flavor profile of the fish; dancing upon your tastebuds in blissful harmony.
Still, as good as the oysters, shrimp and ceviche was, there was no denying the star of this show was indeed, the Tuna Tartare.
Generous chunks of tuna and avocado were tossed with subtle seasonings and elements that struck the perfect acidic balance in a simple, yet masterful, dish that was as fine a seafood offering as I've had to date. There was a pleasurable aspect about indulging in this dish that is not always present. Not to overuse the term - it was almost a zen-like experience.
Following some great conversation, Joe suggested a mixed platter of Salumi (meats), Formaggi (cheeses) and Insalate (salads). The choices left to his discretion, he soon returned with a slab of blue slate, perhaps a foot and a half in length, covered with a variety of goodies like felino, bresaola, parmacotto tartufato, mortadella, robiola, sheep's milk ricotta, caprese and funghi tartufati.
Felino is a hand-made salami, that although peppery and herbal, is not very spicy. It's made with fennel and red wine and is on the softer side.
Bresaola is a lean, air-dried, cured beef that when paired with a softer cheese variety, is perfection in terms of charcuterie.
But again, there was a star present on this platter as well, and this time it was the Funghi Tartufati - a wild mushroom salad, that once again, struck the perfect harmonic chord of balance. There was an initial hint of saltiness present that quickly dissipated into a subtle olive essence that seemed to permeate your every sense without overpowering any one. The depth of its flavor profile was as unique as it was pleasurable. I cannot sing the praises of this dish loudly enough. Exquisitely divine.
As we finished our meal and reflected on the evening's offerings and sublime ambiance, I began contemplating owner Joseph Marazzo's remarkable aptitude for providing the perfect evening within a minimal space with a minimal menu. I was enthralled by the manner in which he interwove rudimentary elements and somehow, created this magic.
I thought of my environs - in truth, nothing more than a 6' x 60' alleyway left over from a bygone era that he turned into a place of comfort for me.
I reflected on the meal I was just served. It was not created by a chef of renown, but with Joseph's careful and deliberate menu choices and his knowledge of picture perfect wine pairings, he painted a masterpiece of delicious colors upon my palate.
Joseph Marazzo is by no means ordinary, and neither is Virgola. He took a concept and created a successful reality, and just how to handle that success is problematic for me.
Virgola is something special. Between that six foot span of dark, brick walls, cozy tables, smokey-voiced crooners, platters of moist, plump oysters, delectable charcuterie and rich Italian varietals, Mr. Marazzo has created a 360 square foot aphrodisiac. And in the end, that's something far too good to keep to myself.
Virgola • 28 Greenwich Ave, New York, NY 10011 • (212) 330-6565