Siren Song

Marcello Fiorentino changed the way Americans eat; he just can't change the way they drink.

We just took a deep breath and began our three-hour, four-course meal with those clams origanati, plump and sizzling under a sprinkling of bread crumbs and garlic, a plash of white wine and olive oil, and some freshly chopped oregano ($9). The insalata Bellisima ($10), a special, a blend of lovingly cultivated and spankingly fresh microgreens, was tossed with gorgonzola and walnuts in a tart house dressing. The standout salad was the antipasto La Stalla ($9), made with the air-dried, spice-rubbed beef of Lombardy called bresaola, still difficult to find in the States. Even sliced as thin as this was, it still retained its very visceral, deeply maroon hue — the color of a beating heart; and it tasted pleasantly musty and sweet. Served with tiny leaves of arugula, fresh shavings of parmigiano, and a film of olive oil and lemon, this was mighty delightful stuff. On my second visit, I had a perfect caesar salad ($8), salty with chopped anchovies and chunky homemade croutons. One of the better caesars in this vicinity.

In due time, our primi piatti arrived, a beautiful half-order of plump lobster ravioli ($12, a special), cradled in a velvety tomato cream and lobster liquor sauce. The lobster was chunky and buttery, the handmade ravioli carefully cooked to an exacting degree of pliancy. (We tried this again on our second visit, when it was still on special over a week later, and I'm sorry to report it tasted like it hadn't aged gracefully). We also had lovely little clouds of potato gnocchi alla Sorrentina ($8), lightly tossed in a pure tomato sauce with garlic and basil, then baked briefly with melting chunks of homemade mozzarella. Both the pastas were terrifically stimulating.

Secondi piatti. Petti di pollo Pizzaiola ($20) made a tasty and relatively inexpensive main course. Pounded chicken breasts were doused in a piquant sauce, a sort of puttanesca of sautéed tomatoes with black olives, garlic, and capers. A fillet of Dover sole ($36) was a classic carry-over from Capriccio, delicate and dreamlike in its sheath of brown butter, exceedingly moist, scented with lemon. But scampi Marcello ($34) was the revelation — huge shrimp butterflied in their shell and finished with a fine sauce of sherry, butter, garlic and mustard. You fork the meat from the shell and it's as dazzling as lobster — the sherry and mustard giving it flickers of depth and heat.

Joe Rocco

I'm not sure what happened the Wednesday we went back, but our main courses were so oversalted they were barely edible — both the veal saltimbocca and a special dish of spaghetti with homemade veal meatballs; and as noted, the lobster ravioli, had lost their zing. Maybe the chef got word of the coke guzzlers and just gave up on subtle flavorings, realizing that nobody would notice anyway.

It's been a long time since I've had zabaglione ($14), but in homage to Capriccio's, I felt I should. Who but the Italians could have invented this warm, sun-colored bowl of egg froth, emanating sweet, alcoholic, Marsala-infused vapors? Surely the mad Spanish chef Ferran Adria's "cloud of carrot" and "lemon foam," his "red fruit espuma" are just variations on this hoary old Italian dessert. Perhaps they're an improvement. But I doubt it. The succulent red raspberries at the bottom of the dish were buried jewels.

I confess I don't know how, exactly, to feel about La Sirena. The crowd of regulars is stunningly weird. The noise level is well nigh unbearable. The pace of the dining on Saturday night was enough to try even my unflappable patience. The food ranged from smart and elegant one night to practically ruined the next. But the experience never felt dull, and I guess that regulars must adore this 30-year-old institution the way you'd have a soft spot for some aging contessa who once set her world on edge, regal if wrinkled, sometimes impossible in her whims and inexplicable in her habits. But at times, it seems, the lady can still turn a phrase to take your breath away.

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