Good meals begin with good appetizers, and sometimes end with them.
It happened to us at Mangia Qui. All we did was ask for a sampler while our server, Whitney, was wending her way through the app specials and their mignonette sauce, ponzu drizzle, etc. Our table’s resident foodie cut right to it.
“Is there any way that we could have, like, a selection of appetizers?” she asked. “Whatever you think ought to be tasted.”
Whitney returned minutes later with half a dozen pretty plates of carpaccio, oysters, battered mussels, stuffed prosciutto, stuffed artichoke and scarola – escarole topped with bosc pear tidbits and a delicate bleu cheese.
Chef Qui Qui Musarra has been serving her elegant food at Third and North Streets for seven years, at The Firehouse before that, in D.C. and Spain and Puerto Rico before that. She opened Mangia Qui in 2002 at the old Paper Moon. With her partners Staci Basore and Elide Hower, she spends her days shopping for food at local markets and the nights cooking and serving.
Their dining room seats about 50 in quiet intimacy. The service is exceptional. (When was the last time a server asked to take your coat and go hang it up?)
We didn’t go to Qui’s to gorge on apps, but there they were.
The carpaccio was beef. While I was talking to the woman beside me, our group’s meatatarian almost inhaled the raw filet mignon before I noticed and snagged a corner of it. Pounded to millimetric thinness, the dry-aged beef was black silk laid on the flat green arugula leaves, garnished with grape salsa. My single, small piece of beef floated from the fork into my mouth and disappeared. I wanted more; really, I wanted my own plate of it.
Then there were the mussels. Green lips are among the largest species, and they made for soft, succulent mouthfuls. “These are delicious, we got to try these in the back,” Whitney said. “They’re in a tempura batter, they’re deep-fried and they’re in a pistachio pesto – not a chunky pesto, very creamy.”
Our first taste reaction was, tempura? Couldn’t be. But yeah, it was; just not a heavy, smothering batter. It was a crisp, light and lacy covering that cuddled the mussels as they awaited the creamy pesto.
I went from that to the grilled oysters in smoky aioli sauce. The aioli gave a surprising depth of flavor that hauled the oyster in a bacony direction, like something you’d find at Cochon in New Orleans’ warehouse district. Our foodie said the sauce was unnecessary, but it really took my oyster for a ride.
Mangia Qui has a real oyster fetish going, with raw oyster flights that change weekly. The night we went the card included Chef Creek succulents from Baynes Sound, British Columbia; Nasketucket Bay oysters from a Cape Cod salt marsh, and Canada Cups, firm and salty oysters that grow off Prince Edward Island.
With all this protein we’d been ignoring the salad, and turned to it happily. “Umm, I like that salad,” someone said. “Wow.” The gorgonzola and the pear bits were like warm and cold elements nestled in the greens, nicely balanced, somehow refreshing and peaceful, and wanting us to go slower.
We did. We stopped for a lesson in artichoke eating.
“The carciofi is a whole artichoke,” our foodie said. “I love this!”
Stuffed with a bread crumb, oregano and Parmesano Reggiano mix, the multi-pointed softball-sized artichoke was daunting. I pulled a leaf, dipped it in the sauce and ate it. Wrong.
Imagine a gently professorial voice from our foodie here.
“You take a leaf off the artichoke and, in effect, turn it upside down. You put it in the sauce, you put it in your mouth and your bottom teeth act like a kind of knife, and you scrape it. I know this is going to sound kind of sexual, but it’s the fleshy area which you put into your mouth and scrape against the top of your bottom teeth. Slowly disengage the leaf from your mouth, and you will find a delicious morsel waiting there for you.”
After that, the prosciutto rollitini seemed anti-climactic.
“We might be in trouble with this amount of food,” the foodie said.
“This may be dinner,” I said, indicating the many empty hors d’oeuvre plates.
“I know,” the foodie said, abashed for having ordered so many apps.
“Oh no, no, no, no,” the meatatarian said. “I don’t know about you guys, but I purposely did not eat anything today because we were coming here.”
Oh. K. Got it.
Mrs. Meatatarian smiled gamely while he ordered the Tuscan Grill. What the hell, we decided, and ordered the Zuppa di Pesce: clams, mussels, shrimp, octopus, calamari and scallops in a saffron crab broth.
The Tuscan Grill was stupendous. Gynormous. It looked like about two pounds of dry-aged ribeye with a lovely, darkly seared top, and when cut revealed a warm red center, textbook medium rare. What rested beside it, however, was anything but a traditional sauce: roasted Thai chiles minced with tomato and vinegar.
“Right up to the moment of me cutting this,” our meatatarian said, “I didn’t think I was going to share it with any of you. So I’m going to excuse myself and eat a lot of this right now. Don’t interrupt me.”
Good plan. Well, except for the alluring little pile of chile sauce. It was pretty hot. Not hot enough to make you sweat, as someone said. Not habanero hot, more like jalapeno hot. Which for most people is quite hot enough.
“Whitney, can we get some more bread?” said our Tuscan steak-eating friend, who at my suggestion had essayed the chopped chiles. “That is definitely spicier than I can enjoy.”
He sliced me off a small corner of the beef, and I dipped it in the chile sauce. The flavors rushed into each other’s arms for a riotous Mambo Italiano inside my mouth. (Me like hot.) Go chi-le, go chi-le!
Chiles are often considered peculiar to Mexican cooking, or to Tex-Mex extravaganzas like the Pennsylvania Chili Cookoff on City Island that Dawson Flinchbaugh raised to such insane heights. (A jalapeno pepper eating contest? Thanks, Flinchy.) But many pasta sauces include sautéed hot peppers, fresh or dried, and cucina Italiana guru Marcella Hazan says they “add a high-pitched accent that will jab a nodding palate to attention.”
As we manly types discussed the heat in curries as opposed to chiles, the Zuppa di Pesce, soup of fish, was fast disappearing.
I begged an octopus chunk from my neighbor and took a scallop and some clams with it. The broth was slightly thick, like reduced crab stock, and very tasty. The seafood came out lightly cooked, fresh and bright and delicious. Basically, this was soup you could eat with a fork.
We talked and ate some more and I was ready to settle up and go, not being a dessert guy.
Before I could, however, one of us ordered dessert. Actually, two desserts: Chambord Semifreddo, (semifreddo being Italian for “sort of cold”), and for contrast the Lemon Santiago, which turned out to be a rich, moist, but not terribly sweet lemon cake that in texture fell somewhere between corn bread and pound cake.
The Chambord creation arrived on gold leaf. Whoa. It seemed to be the French black raspberry liqueur and gelato, but I didn’t ask. It was too intimidating.
Both desserts, I said out loud, have gravitas.
“We’re going to have gravitas tomorrow,” the foodie said, “when we get on the scale.”