The preview menu I saw was almost too good to be true, but there it was – the insanely craveable fried polenta I remembered from little take-out shops in Italy, heretofore unavailable in NYC. New Italian restaurant Tonda specializes in Neapolitan street food, which, perhaps because of the exotic spin put on the name, still feels underutilized in New York. You can get fried artichokes at a number of places and excellent chickpea fritters at Bar Stuzzichini, but I’d never seen fried polenta in these parts before.
Tonda wasn’t especially crowded on the night we went there – but that also meant it wasn’t loud and annoying like a few other inexpensive places that have opened recently. It’s one of those East Village-y candlelit rustic table spots, but it just hasn’t quite been discovered yet. If you’re looking for a place for a big, crowd-pleasing dinner, however, there’s a table that seats about 10 in back.
The moment of truth arrived: the scagluzzoli ($4.50), or fried polenta, landed on the table. Sadly, it wasn’t how I remembered it. In Florence the polenta was always well-salted, cooled in a deep pan, cut into cubes and quickly fried until just light brown, then popped into a paper bag that you’d take out with you to the street. Tonda’s was very fancified in comparison, a round cut into wedges like a pretty little cheese and topped with mushrooms. Also, they forgot the salt. True street food should be crazily snacky, salty, not good for you, and potentially portable. Perhaps I will tackle this recipe at a later point as the Copycat Chef – it’s actually not hard to make.
Much better was the caprese ($9), made with an insanely generous serving of fresh bufala mozzarella flown in from Naples. There must have been a pound of slightly tart, velvety mozzarella paired with the cherry tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. Tonda’s definitely ranks up there as some of the best caprese in the city – better than the caprese at mozzarella-themed Obika in the IBM building.
When a restaurant is firing pies with a much-hyped $30K revolving oven, you pretty much have to get the pizza. (Little did pizza’s Roman peasant forebears know that it would one day require a $3oK contraption instead of a oven made of stones, but anyway.) Marie Fromage and I disagreed with previous commenters who thought the pizza was soggy – the only problem was architectural. (The crust had char on the edges and underneath this time – perhaps the initial reviewers went before the cooks got the hang of the oven.) Here again Tonda was extremely generous with the amount of food, piling tons of speck, asparagus, mozzarella, and fresh tomato on my pizza ($15) – so much that it weighed down the crispy crust in the middle and made it bend when picked up. There are some things that should never feel floppy when you pick them up in your hand – including pizza.
But again, Tonda’s main error was their eagerness to please with an abundance of toppings – it wasn’t a problem of quality or flavor. The tuna pizza ($13) with fresh tomato, onions, and capers has a sublimely savory/fishy taste but was also bendy. Perhaps because of its peasant roots, a balanced pizza should be rather spartan.
That same generosity, though, plus the kindness of the staff, plus the great wines by the glass (try the Sangiovese), plus the value, the plus the understated, cool atmosphere, is what will keep us coming back to this E Vill spot for more. And if you get an overabundance of anything, there’s always pizza to go.
235 East 4th Street, between Avenues A and B
New York, NY 10009