With so many fine French and Italian restaurants out there in New York, it’s really hard to define which is the best and which is the most special. However, Ai fiori is a symbol that combines these two styles perfectly together. Today we are here at Ai fiori, having an interview with chef PJ Calapa and trying out his French Italian culinary expertise. Aiming to present the traditional cuisine in a modern way, they try to bring their customers a taste of French and Italian style in the same meal by integrating the two styles together.
To start with,, the chef introduces us to their signature pasta, Trofie Nero, which is made of ligurian crustacean ragu, sepia, scallops and spiced mollica. They have a team comprised of 30 chefs, who together create the menu and change it seasonally – except for the signature dish—Trofie Nero. After our interview, I tried the pasta and, having eaten in many different Italian restaurants before, Trofie Nero is definitely one of the best ones I’ve ever had.
When Spring changes to Summer, so too is the biggest change on the menu, especially with vegetables and fish. You’ll see a lot of spring vegetables like peas and mushroom. In Summer, they have tomato in high season, and squash. In winter they start to serve certain shellfish, such as scallops. Chef PJ also introduced Tagliata, which is made of prime dry- aged strip loin, endive, potato terrine, “cacao e pepe”, balsamico and bordelaise. They take a small portion of beef and age it for 40 days, which makes the flavor more concentrated and more tender. It loses its water content when it ages, which makes it much more easier to polish. The classic dish of Tagliata is sliced beef served with cheese, but in Ai fiori, Chef PJ creates a more refined version.
For a fruit dish, he recommends the Crudo di Passera, made with fluke crudo, American sturgeon caviar and meyer lemon. As a foodie himself, Chef PJ likes to try different kinds of cuisines as well. Having worked at Bouley, Eleven Madison Park and Nobu 57, Chef PJ has extensive culinary experience, which has enabled him to create his own style of cooking. Bouley has very French fine dinning, which is similar with Ai fiori. You can see all the French dishes also on Bouley’s menu. When he worked at Eleven Madison Park, it was more new American style, but now is more French. As a French-Italian restaurant, Ai fiori combines characters of both. According to Chef PJ, the main difference between French and Italian cuisine is ingredients, therefore it provides them a bigger range to choose from French ingredients to Italian ingredients.
He also learned Japanese cooking while at Nobu 57. The similarity between Japanese and Italian food is very close—they both use very little ingredients but they always use the best they can find and highlight it in the cuisine.
Chef PJ told us that they have around 200 lunch reservations today, and that their success is the result of always keeping true to their style: stick to a classic and traditional flavor; even every single pasta is handmade in the house.
The interior design is simple but classic, delivering an upscale and classic enjoyment to fine dinning. I really loved the paintings on the wall, which make you feel like you are dining in a small gallery but with delicate tables all around. Located in the The Setai Hotel on Fifth Avenue, we noticed that there are a lot of out-of-town customers, especially a lot of Asians. Compared with New Yorkers that are more up to season, Ai fiori may be more attractive to visitors because of its classic Italian flavor. They take a classic dish such as Tagliata and put it in an extremely fine, elegant dining space, where you can enjoy both the modern atmosphere as well as the classic flavor found in an Italian country home.