In a symbolic moment in “The Godfather,” capo Clemenza teaches Michael how to make pasta sauce. “You start out with a little bit of oil,” he says. “Then you fry some garlic.”
For many cooks and diners alike, garlic is the staple ingredient of Italian cuisine, as critical to the flavors as tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. But increasingly, the city’s swankiest Italian spots are cutting down on the aromatic allium — or doing away with it altogether — to please finicky clientele worried about their breath, and let other ingredients shine.
“People always complained that it was smelly and gassy,” Thomas Makkos, the owner of Upper East Side celeb mainstay Nello, told The Post. “Finally, I made the decision to get rid of it all together, and my customers thanked me.”
Makkos said he banned the stinker of an ingredient in the summer of 2020 in response to diners’ requests. He blamed COVID protections: “Imagine eating a meal with garlic and putting a mask on,” he said. “You’re breathing your own bad breath.” (Some regulars miss the garlic, though, and the kitchen makes special accommodations for them.)
Then there’s the glitzy new northern Italian spot Fasano in Midtown. Executive chef Nicola Fedeli said that he rarely relies on the pungent seasoning in his refined cuisine, and that cooking with heaps of minced garlic isn’t actually that Italian.
“Garlic in Italy, as it relates to fine dining, is used to perfume rather than to accentuate or mask flavors,” he told The Post. “Rather than chopping garlic, whole cloves are used and later removed before food is served.”
Chopping garlic makes the flavor overpowering, according to Fedeli. “It is used in an exaggerated way that takes away from the purpose of the dish and has left many unhappy about its presence in the process,” he said. If you manage to snag a table at Fasano — reservations have been scarce — tasty dishes that won’t leave you breathing fire include lobster fettuccine, the can’t-miss seafood risotto and even the typically garlic-heavy linguine con vongole.
The twin buzzy downtown restos Alice, which opened last summer, and Osteria 57, are also onboard with a minimal garlic approach. Riccardo Orfino, a partner and the executive chef of both, who’s from Padua, Italy, says that he uses it sparingly. “It’s Italian-American, not Italian,” he confirms. Orfino’s lineup of garlic-less options at Osteria 57 includes a burrata pasta and salmon with artichokes and citrus sauce. Hardly any of Alice’s pastas feature the stinky herb, not even the spaghetti pomodoro.
For 33-year-old NYC dating blogger Alexis Wolfe, “sexy, sceney” Alice’s light touch with the alliums makes it a perfect place for a romantic meal. “Garlic can be heavy, and no one wants to smell on a night out, especially if it’s a date,” she said.
Sceney Italian mainstay Cipriani has long been clove conscious.
“Garlic has never been a part of Cipriani cuisine,” proprietor Arrigo Cipriani told The Post of his New York institution. “Nothing should be overpowering, and real flavors should not be covered by a strong taste that’s difficult to digest.”
John Villa, executive chef at Midtown’s new high-design Cucina 8 ½, has a similar perspective. He uses garlic, but sparingly, and dishes such as spaghetti with lemon pizza with Taleggio cheese, caramelized onions and truffle omit it entirely.
“I want the flavors of the food to shine.”
The trend isn’t just limited to Italian food — high-end Greek restaurant Avra, which has two locations in Manhattan, and new modern American spot Lindens in Soho, are both intentionally avoiding garlic in several dishes on their menus.
But not everyone is so keen on giving it up.
Jeff Zalaznick, a co-founder of Major Food Group, which has more than 10 Italian restaurants, including several locations of the in-demand Carbone, told The Post that his company is “all about garlic.”
“It’s one of the most important ingredients in our cooking,” he said. “We love it.”