Looking for East Side Social Club, you may walk right past the entrance, dissuaded by a grumpy-looking guy standing in front of the barely marked door. Don’t worry, he doesn’t bite, and you don’t need a password to enter—though you might need one to get a reservation, since this neighborhood hot spot tends to fill up most nights. Lucky for us, we had called ahead, although we still had to wait more than 30 minutes for a table. Our bellies rumbled the whole time, but the wait was worth it.
There are Italian restaurants, and then there are family-run Italian restaurants. The latter is where you tend to get true Italian camaraderie. This is exactly the attitude at East Side Social Club, as if by entering the establishment you have become part of the exclusive society where the owner makes his rounds, and his family is seated nearby, boisterously enjoying the food and wine. Red-and-white-checkered cloths cover the tables and the warm, dark wood and walls help take a bite out of the chilly night.
As we settled in the comfy leather banquet and sturdy wooden chairs, we instantly relaxed and started casually popping the plump olives that had been set before us, even before waters arrived. These little gems satiated our hunger for the moment so we could gear up for the real prize: the appetizers. We ordered the buffalo ricotta with ciabatta bread ($10), the crisp sweetbreads ($10) and, at the suggestion of our friendly waiter, the raviolo ($14). First out was the raviolo, a large, single ravioli made with prosciutto, ricotta and egg. As we sliced the dish in half, the delicate golden yolk poured out, as if we had just cut into a poached egg. A single bite revealed what tasted like the best ham and cheese omelet ever.
The sweetbreads, while shunned by my two squeamish girlfriends, were heartily enjoyed by my other companion and I. The little fried glands had a crispy shell and melted on the inside. Combined with a light toss of orange, fennel, leeks and capers, the richness of the dish was curbed by salt and citrus. Though both these appetizers won merit, the light, fresh and fluffy buffalo ricotta was the true star. With a hint of lemon, this bowl of pure ricotta heaven quickly disappeared on slices of bread (and when that ran out, our spoons).
Off the pasta menu, the girls got the pappardelle ($19) and ricotta gnocchi ($17). The thick pappardelle, a broad fettuccini, came chockfull of shredded pieces of tender Berkshire pork shoulder and sweet mascarpone cheese. A hint of cinnamon rounded out the flavors nicely, making this savory dish a meal in itself. The same could be said for the ricotta gnocchi. While ricotta made this dish lighter than its potato cousin, the thick Bolognese ragu was no joke. The supple gnocchi soaked in the delicious juices of the sauce and meat to create another winning plate.
Off the entrée menu, we sampled the grilled chicken leg ($24) and the roasted cod ($26). My companion declared the flaky cod the best dish he has ever had, and yes, it certainly was a prize piece of fish. The cod came soaked in a tomato saffron broth and garnished with mussels and fregola pasta, which is kind of like couscous. I then focused on the overwhelming chicken leg in front of me. Like the other dishes, this one came in a small, oval plate and was filled to the brim with cannellini beans. The tender chicken yielded to my fork, making the large steak knife they gave me unnecessary. Then, as I placed the pliant flesh into my mouth, garlic poured over my tastes buds in a warm and satisfying blanket of flavor. This paired nicely with the tender beans and crisp leaves of kale.
Long after we finished our meal, we still had the dregs of our second bottle of wine to sip. As the waiter and busboys busied themselves clearing the table, they didn’t for one second make us feel rushed. Even though it was our first time, by the end of the night it felt like we had been there forever and would certainly be there again.
East Side Social Club
230 E. 51st St. betw. Second and Third avenues
Entrées: $17 to $28
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