When I need a little bit of savory comfort, I turn to Italian food. That’s been the case ever since I was a little kid, when my mom hired me as her unofficial sous chef when she needed assistance making stuffed shells swimming in homemade marinara or near-perfect takes on my nana’s secret meatballs. (Even after 28 years, she refuses to let go of her prized recipe.) As much as hearty plates of pasta and cheese get the job done in turning my frown upside down, the post-carb belly is a cruel reminder that the key to my happiness is only a temporary one. Or is it?
Chef Harold Dieterle is testing the guilt-free—or carb-free, at least—Italian notion with Tali and Tali Dolce in Kips Bay. The first winner of Top Chef had a trio of low-key but critically acclaimed establishments around the West Village—The Marrow, Perilla, and Kin Shop—before he took a step back from the hospitality industry in 2015. He’s now back from his brief hiatus, consulting with the gluten-free restaurant and compact bakery just around the bend. While elements of the dining room scream fast casual—an adjacent fridge next to the register is filled with grab-and-go items and beverages for the road—proper silverware and a hard-to-resist happy-hour deal ($4 glasses of wine and $7 cocktails from 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays) are meant to keep diners lingering for a little bit longer.
The lack of flour doesn’t necessarily mean you’re missing the indulgence. Dishes like the hyper-seasonal penne may seem healthy upon first glance—large chunks of roasted butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds, and torn bits of sage are prominent with every bite—but then you happily discover that it’s packed with the robust flavors of Pecorino and nutty brown butter. The most surprising aspect of each dish, though, is that the noodles don’t have the gummy texture of most gluten-free pastas. Instead, each bite of penne has the same al dente chewiness you’d expect from any Italian restaurant worth its oregano.
As surprisingly good as the pasta is, though, the hearty meatball here is better. Dieterle’s signature dish before his two-year break from professional cooking was his spicy duck meatball, so it’s no surprise the Roman version was the shining star on my overflowing lunch plate. A simple blend of ground beef and fennel-laced sausage delivered both a quintessential savoriness and an unusual hint of licorice that’s not usually found in your nonna’s recipe. Clearly, the chef knows his take is of the utmost quality; it’s found three times on the menu (atop piles of spaghetti you’d want to re-create Lady and the Tramp with, stuffed inside a panini, or flying solo as a side).
Speaking of sides, leave room for a few; the super-cheesy mozzarella sticks and crispy potatoes with lemon aioli are hard to resist. And perhaps request an extra serving of both to go; they’ll taste just as good when you refry them in the comfort of your own apartment.
The gluten-free desserts were less successful than their precursors. While I couldn’t necessarily tell the dulce de leche–filled alfajores and classic chocolate chip cookies were missing flour, they left a too-sweet tackiness on the roof of my mouth. Tali Dolce’s riff on a Snickers dessert, however, was a tasty melt-in-your-mouth (and hand) ganache cup fully loaded with salty peanut bits and a molasses-caramel mashup. The filling had a pecan-pie texture and a taste to match, if you had your eyes closed.
Tali and Tali Dolce
77 Lexington Avenue (at 26th Street), Kips Bay