While it’s true you can’t always judge New York City’s Italian restaurants by their customers, the rapid Italian spoken by employees and diners alike at San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar seemed like a promising sign. In the case of this Upper East Side gem, the theory certainly holds true.
San Matteo, which opened last September, is perhaps best known for its panuozzo — an Italian dish that’s a cross between a panino and a pizza.
Most of the main ingredients used in the restaurant’s dishes — buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil and tomatoes — are imported from Salerno, a city in southwest Italy that is the hometown of San Matteo’s management team, chefs and co-owners Fabio Casella and Enzo Scardino, and co-owner Ciro Casella.
Brothers Fabio and Ciro Casella entered the restaurant industry at a young age, working at the restaurant their mother owned in Italy. More recently, Fabio had a hand in developing the Italian cheese programs at Dean and Deluca and Grace’s Marketplace. Scardino, on the other hand, built San Matteo’s pizza oven himself.
We started with the mozzarella di bufala caprese, which combined fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, olive oil and basil. The tomatoes and basil tasted fresh, and the mozzarella, which Fabio Casella makes himself, was creamy and moist.
Next we tried the porcini e tartufo, one of the restaurant’s 20 or so pizzas. Ours was a thin-crust pizza with porcini mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano and truffle oil.
“This is the closest thing to Italian pizza I’ve had since I lived in Italy,” one of us said, noting the thin crust, fresh ingredients and simple presentation.
The third dish to arrive at the table was the gnocchi alla sorrentina. The potato gnocchi were nicely cooked — just soft enough but not mushy. The sharp Pecorino cheese heaped on top had all of us coming back for more, but the tomato sauce needed a little extra salt.
Finally, it was time for San Matteo’s specialty, the panuozzo, which our waitress told us is made with fresh dough that is baked until it puffs up, before being sliced in half and stuffed with the remaining ingredients—porchetta or eggplant, for instance. The sandwich-like dish is then baked until bread, fillings and flavors melt together.
Our first panuozzo, the panuozzo di bartolomei, consisted of roasted pork, mozzarella, and arugula. The pork was moist and tender but not heavy or fatty, and the homemade mozzarella was well-portioned.
The second panuozzo was the ortolano, made with mozzarella, grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, and arugula.
We finished our meal with the tiramisu and the pizza con nutella, a thin-crust pizza slathered with the popular European hazelnut spread and dusted with powdered sugar. The well-balanced savory-and-sweet combination left us begging for an espresso, which we promptly ordered.
By the end of the meal, our body language had shifted from upright and proper to relaxed and slumped over our chairs, as we reminisced about Italy, discussing restaurants visited and foods sampled on past trips.
“It’s cute, and the people are nice,” one of us declared of San Matteo. “If you know what Italy is like, you’ll appreciate this place.”
— Sarah R. Kaufman, City Spoonful Contributor