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Good enough for your Italian girlfriend

Fiorella brings casual European dining to the Rochester Public Market

In your defense, she’s beautiful. A Vesuvian plume of raven black hair spills down her back. She wears a lot of sleeveless tops, and her arms are toned. Freckles play across her shoulders. When she speaks to you with, oh, that accent, her eye contact is piercing. Her hands slice the air with knife-like gestures. You’ve known her for three weeks, and you can’t believe this gorgeous Italian woman keeps ringing you up. Her intensity can be exhausting, but you can’t look away from her.

On your first date, you do what all good Rochesterians do and take her to Pittsford Wegmans with the absolute certainty that she will be amazed. You see in her expression that this American supermecca is but a pale imitation of the open air markets she’s used to back home. Her politesse finally breaks somewhere in the middle of the frozen foods section when she wrinkles her nose and says, “Don’t you Americans know how to do anything in the kitchen except heat things up? Frozen focaccia? Really?”

Her exuberance verges on self-parody. You can’t tell whether or not she’s seriously angry at the many affronts here on her ancestral cuisine. The word “fettuccini” is especially offensive to her. “It’s fettuccine, with an ‘e.’ Any Italian chef who spells it with an ‘i’ should burn his passport.”

And so on subsequent dates, you avoid the many Italian restaurants in Rochester you once thought were so good. You take her for Vietnamese, which she seems to enjoy. You try high-end Mexican, where she approves of the carnitas because “everything else is swimming in cheese and butter.” At a local barbecue joint, she indulges you as you explain the differences between the four main barbecue regions with variations like Alabama’s white sauce. You explain how Rochester struggles with North Carolina barbecue, serving it without vinegar-based sauce and using pork that’s been pulled instead of minced with crunchy cracklins mixed in. 

“So, if I take you to a Southern barbecue place in Italy, you would have a lot to say about it, wouldn’t you?” she says, her lips pressed into a smile, one eyebrow arched. She’s got a good point.

A few nights later, you show up without a reservation at that popular French bistro. It’s hopping, and you try in vain to get a couple of seats. “What about the place next door?” she asks. That would be Resaurant Fiorella. Which is Italian. Inside your head, you’re making the sign of the cross.

It’s just as busy, but there are still two seats left at the bar. Along the back wall is a sign announcing a legal occupancy limit of 47. A white statue of Virgin Mary, covered in a patina of dust, looks over the small dining room among cans of tomato sauce. A hand-lettered chalkboard boasts of naturally-leavened dough and the Finger Lakes farms that provide the ingredients of your meal. 

To start you offer to split an arugula salad ($8) with roasted beets and shaved Grana Padano, a cheese similar to Parmigiano Reggiano. (You’ve learned to not ever say “parmesan” to her.) The salad is doused with a bit of olive oil, but nothing more. “Four or five ingredients,” she says, clearly impressed. “That’s the secret.”

It’s a hot day, so you’re drinking a Bianco Lilia ($10), a white wine spritzer with vermouth, honey, and lemon. She opts for a glass of Tuscan red ($13) served authentically in a miniature tumbler rather than stem glass. You wipe a red stain from her top lip. 

You order the spaghetti pomodoro with a meatball ($15) just to watch her suffer. Predictably, she asks “What is this spaghetti with the meatball? We have no such thing in Italy.” But she’s grinning with appreciation. You’re finally figuring out her game. She orders something closer to what she would prepare in her own kitchen, a tagliatelle with shellfish, greens, and a sugo rosa, a red sauce made with tomatoes, garlic, basil, oil, and not much else. After the dish comes out, she’s quiet for the first few bites, clearly taken off guard. All of Fiorella’s pasta is “fatta in casa,” made in house, and you can immediately taste the difference. Her silence, however, doesn’t last—but at least she’s talking about American politics now, not the food.

Dessert is a couple of scoops of gelato ($5) with a wedge of waffle cone, the Italian ice milk concoction also made in house. As you finish, she puts a hand on top of yours and says “Grazie. This was nice.”

“You mean it?” 

“Yes. It was … decent. I would come back.”

With that, Fiorella passes muster with your Italian girlfriend. You smile with relief. You wonder what you were afraid of in the first place. Rochester has its own collection of slice parlors and red-checkered sauce joints, but there are also Italian places that try hard to create an authentic experience. Restaurant Fiorella brings Italy to New York through simplicity and humor, not overwhelming flair. There are only a few things on the menu each night. They rotate regularly according to the availability of ingredients sold just footsteps away in the stalls of the Public Market. If you ever have to host a demanding food-lover visiting from Rome or Naples, Fiorella is a safe choice. 

Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors. 

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