Happiness on the UES

Felice Wine Bar Upper East Side 24 October 10
eat: Polipo Grigliato, Pappardelle alla Bolognese, Broccoli
sip: Maltese Bianco Tenuta Rapitale 09 (Sicilia) , Felice Sardi Giustiniani (Toscana) 09

Although my home is temporary on the Upper East Side, I have still been eager to find a nearby spot that fits my neighborhood needs. I was looking to fulfill that quintessential New York fantasy: where everything you need is just outside your door. The haute, culinary institutions like Daniel and JoJo are too hoity-toity for a nightly nosh. 2nd Ave's restaurant row, a sea of mediocrity, seems to exist more due to convenience and sociability rather than quality of food. Indeed there are some tasty ethnic joints, Baluchi's (Indian) and Pig Heaven (Chinese), but I prefer to savor their dishes at home in my pajamas. When I stumbled on Felice Wine Bar, I finally found my local.

Felice Wine Bar is the sister restaurant to Sant Ambroeus, the Milanese pasticerria and gelateria that has expanded New Yorker's waistlines for 30 years. Felice, which means "happy" in Italian, is more than the average wine bar thanks to one of the owners, Jacopo Giustiniani. Since Jacopo grew up in his family's Tuscany vineyard, which he now runs, his intimate knowledge of wine imbues the restaurant with oenophilic oomph. The vinicultural theme is embraced in the decor: enormous, glass wine jugs create a stunning candelabra centerpiece and wine bottles line the walls. With tufted leather benches, a communal wooden table and a flattering, candlelit glow, the ristorante is equally suited for romantic dates or family dinners. In warm weather, sidewalk tables offer prime viewing of the passeggiata - the urban stroll.

My amica, Inga, and I opt for a seat at the travertine bar. Our charming bartender, Ben, educationally escorts us through the wine list. We sip the Maltese Bianco Tenuta Rapitala 09, a crisp, dry, lemony blend of catoratto and grillo, Sicily’s indigenous white grape. Contrasting, the Felice house white, from the Giustiniani family winery, is a marvelous, medium-bodied misto of buttery chardonnay and grassy vermentino. When ordering, be sure to leave room for the addictive bread basket. Freshly-baked bread arrives with a bright chartreuse olive oil that is earthy and astringent . Unlike the drier focaccia I'm accustomed to, this version is drenched in olive oil. According to Inga, an Italian cognoscente thanks to many years spent studying in Italy, this is the traditional way focaccia is served.

Polipo Grigliato I’ve never used “octopus” and “juicy” in the same sentence before, but this dish heightens this cephalapod to a new level. Grilled, citronette marinated octopus is bursts with plump, moist flavor. Served on a green cauliflower puree with roast potatoes, red onion, black olives, and fresh greens, this hearty appetizer could easily be an entrée. For those who are wary of octopus, I urge you to try this gateway dish - it just might tip the scale in it's favor.

Pappardelle alla Bolognese I often use this dish as the barometer of authenticity in an Italian restaurant. Here, thick ribbons of homemade pasta glisten with a tasty veal ragú. Since the sauce is traditionally made - more runny than hearty - the toothsome pasta stands out. Usually, I prefer a meatier ragú, but the simplicity of the sauce allows for a less heavy dish.

For our greens fix, the contorni menu offers seasonal veggies that are simply roasted or sauteed with garlic. Here, the verdant broccoli is dressed with garlic and olive oil - simplicity is bliss.

As the name says, Felice IS a wine bar, offering more than 100 bottles of wine of which 18 are available by the glass. Scanning the room, I see a couple nibbling crostini while sipping wine at the bar, a woman dining alone, and a garrulous group at the center table. Like other local faves, Felice happily hosts a variety of diners. It is a welcome, and much-needed, fixture on the UES - whether or not you live around the corner.