After just two-and-a-half years in the Flatiron, Stratis Morfogen shuttered his restaurant Ciano, promising he would reopen again soon on the Upper East Side. The time has come and Morfogen opens the revamped Cucina Ciano this evening with former Ciano sous chef Tin Huynh behind the line. Like its predecessor, Cucina Ciano offers unpretentious yet refined Italian fare, but Morfogen aims to attract a regular neighborhood crowd as opposed to the 'special occasion' clientele at the former restaurant.
Chef's Huynh's dishes speak to that mentality. Though polished on the plate, the food radiates simple comfort, as though prepared in a rustic Tuscan trattoria. At a recent press preview, the exquisitely moist Veal Meatballs ($14) came blanketed in a perfectly balanced arrabiata sauce, with just enough bite to cut through the tang of the tomato. A simple Panzanella Salad ($14) covered all the texture categories from creamy, melty burrata to crunchy, well-toasted bread chunks. Tender strozzapreti pasta are tossed in a velvety Duck Bolognese ($15/25), a dish made popular at the restaurant's first incarnation. The enormous Pork Chop ($26) could feed two—or one seriously hungry patron. Order it medium or less (yes, you can do this with quality pork); the juicy pork mixes with the earthy bean ragout and escarole, creating a delicious plate gravy for dipping.
The cheery dining room comes aglow with candlelight for the evening meal, creating a romantic yet relaxed environment. While the dim lighting might set a certain mood, the music skewed towards contemporary indie rock on our visit, though played in hushed tones so not to overwhelm the atmosphere. It's a little like eating in a well-to-do friend's UES townhouse; it's not stuffy, but there's an undeniable sophistication, courtesy of Morfogen's designer wife Filipa Fino, who worked as Accessories Editor at Vogue before turning to interior design.
We didn't get to see it, but a secret dining space is found in the subterranean level; with room for 18, it doubles as a wine room and a private party room complete with a sound system and television.
181 East 78th Street, (646) 422-7550; cucinaciano.com. Open for dinner Monday through Sunday 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.