Elegant Italian Dining: E. Midtown's Fabio Cucina Italiana

Chef Fabio Hakill delivers at his new venture with personal charm and formal service.

In a town where self-involved, big-name chefs consider their original culinary menus sacrosanct (don't even THINK about asking for a side substitution or change of sauce on that dish, dear customer. Want to order something off-the-menu?—HA!), Chef Fabio Hakill stands apart. The man lives to please—not himself, but, incredulously, his customers. He made a hospitable name for himself at his former haunt Fabio Piccolo Fiore on E. 44th St., with an i'll-make-you-anything-your-heart-desires approach. Yes, even if it's not on the menu. 

And Chef Hakill, half-Sicilain and half-Egyptian, with a culinary education accrued between New York and Rome, can make quite a diverse smattering of plates. Very, very well. His new ventureFabio Cucina Italiana (214 E. 52nd St., 212.688.5200)—yet another sign of Midtown's rebirth as a dining and nightlife destination, no longer just the corporate graveyard of yesterday—is more structured, but Fabio still remains true to his populist food approach. I asked him why he bends over backwards to accommodate customer requests. "Look," he says to me, standing over the table in a clean and pressed chef's coat, "I take care of my family. Who is my family? Everyone who works in my restaurant. Who pays my family? My customer. This is the logic. It is simple." Sound logic, if I've heard any.

If his staff are his family, Chef Hakill has built them a lovely home. The restaurant is simple elegance epitomized. The facade, with a Tuscan feel, is white, with large arched windows framed in rusitc awnings made of steel and sticks. Inside, it's cream-colored class. Egg-white walls, a Greek olive tree rising from the middle of a reception table, white table cloths, plush seating, a gray-and-red central banquette. It's the kind of atmosphere that compels you to sit up straight (rather than demands you to, as over-starched, formal venues can). While Fabio welcomes requests, I decided to stick to the menu. Here are the stars:

In many ways, a restaurant can be judged on how it prepares octopus. It's a popular dish that's easy to mess up. It can be too rubbery, discolored, over-charred, past it's prime, freezer-burned or—at it's worst—less-than-fresh and masked with flavored oils or powerful vinaigrettes. Hakill's carpaccio di polipo was as it should be—simple, fresh, tender and delicious. Served on a bed of arugula and sliced paper-thin, it was adorned with a subtle lemon sauce and lightly salted. Refreshing. 

Next came the pasta, which, at a restaurant with "Italiana" in the name, better be impressive. I went for the Chef's two namesake takes. Pasta alla chef—in which homemade fettucine is brought to you tableside in a pot and tossed in a hollowed-out wheel of Parmesan—was theatrical and filling. The definition of al dente. Pasta alla fabio, the same fettucine but dressed with veal, porcini mushrooms and truffle oil—was creamy, and completed by the juicy mushroom slices mixed throughout. Both please. 

When I see salt-baked branzino on a menu, I usually go for it. My food education began at a small Venetian spot off Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, and I remember serving the dish tableside myself—and it's a showy one. The cooking method is startilingly simple. You take a whole sea bass (branzino is just another name for the fish), coat it in a mixture of coarse salt and water, forming a kind of insulating salty igloo, and put it in the oven for a quick 20-ish minutes. Fabio's team did the dish nobly, adding a little extra flare: the salt igloo surrounding the fish was sculpted to look the the fish itself, complete with artfully etched eye and bone designs. A formally dressed server rolled out the fish on a cart, cracked the salt igloo dramatically with a spoon, and proceeded to gracefully debone and filet the fish before us (not an easy task, and surprisingly high-pressure). Adorned with olive oil and lemon, the fish was moist and refreshing. Out of simplicity comes deliciousness.

A sweet ending came in the form of a cheesecake with graham cracker crust that was drizzled in raspberry sauce, a textbook crème brûlée and—in the good form of Italian kitchens everywhere—two tall shots of housemade limoncello, compliments of the chef. Cold and reviving.

Chef Fabio Hakill may be happy to accommodate your off-menu desires, but Fabio Cucina Italiana's menu is a well-curated selection that one need not deviate from.