Italian passion front and center at Ci Siamo

ClaudiaHillary Kitchen_Credit Giada Paoloni
Hillary Sterling is the executive chef at Ci Siamo.
Giada Paoloni

Hillary Sterling is on fire, literally. The executive chef is serving up modern Italian cuisine created in the heat of a state-of-the-art wood-burning oven and grill at Ci Siamo.

The oven and grill are the centerpieces of the open kitchen Sterling presides over alongside a stellar all-woman team at the restaurant, which is located at 440 West 33rd St., Suite #100.

It’s a feat. Sterling was tapped to lead the restaurant when famed restauranteur Danny Meyer, founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, pivoted from fine dining to a more upbeat vision that was “fun, bold, and welcoming,” according to the Robb Report. The Brooklynite chef was shaped in Bobby Flay and Missy Robbins’ kitchens. Flay and Robbins’ influences are evident in Sterling’s layering of flavors and pasta skills, but the rest is pure Sterling and her passion for Italy and Italian cuisine.

“Italy just has my heart,” Sterling told Gay City News. Meyer gave her free reign to create the Italian-driven menu when he tapped her to lead his newest restaurant in April 2021.

Sterling said she “just wanted to take everyone on the journey” back to Southern Italy, where she went on off-the-map “tasting adventures” at small trattorias with her wife, Tess McNamara. At these trattorias, the couple “unearth[ed] these amazing little bites” and enjoyed “magical” meals, she said.

Sterling recalled the inspiration for the Stracci — a rabbit made with Arneis wine and gorgonzola — and pointed to the pasta with rabbit, wine, and Parmigiano on the menu.

“This is all based on foods that Italians actually serve in Italy,” Sterling said.

She is also giving vegetables their turn in the spotlight.

“I view vegetables with the highest honor,” Sterling said. “They’re not just an accent; they are the whole dish.”

Personally, I loved the roasted mushrooms with thyme and lemon and the braised beans with Parmigiano and olives.

The dishes putting Ci Siamo on the map and establishing it as a truly unique Italian restaurant are the must-have caramelized onion torta, the pork Milanese, and bistecca alla fiorentina, not to mention the handcrafted pasta. The menu has perfect pairings with a selection of 450 bottles of mostly Italian wines — many from unique vineyards — selected by sommelier Robin Wright.

The bistecca alla fiorentina on display at Ci Siamo.Giada Paoloni

The desserts created by Claudia Fleming, formerly of Gramercy Tavern, shouldn’t be missed for those who have a sweet tooth or not. The lemon torta and the hazelnut gelato were especially delicate and heavenly. Under less skilled hands, the lemon torta and the hazelnut gelato flavors could be overpowering, but Fleming created delightful desserts highlighting the essence of lemon and hazelnut that are delicate and heavenly.

Fleming returned to USHG after 20 years to oversee the pastry kitchens for the family of restaurants, according to the New York Times. Ci Siamo is the first restaurant from USHG since 2018. The restaurant opened at Brookfield Properties’ new Manhattan West luxury mixed-use complex in October 2021. Manhattan West is the latest development revitalizing Manhattan’s West Side. The complex is across the street from Moynihan Train Hall, which opened in January 2021. Hudson Yards, which is adjacent, opened in March 2019.

Right now, its newness, along with poor signage, makes finding the restaurant somewhat challenging. There are no obvious signals — diners’ chatter, the clinking of glasses and dishes, the aroma of herbs, cheese, and pasta — that a restaurant lies behind the unassuming storefront up a stairway on the second floor. The awning, Ci Siamo, which translates from Italian to “here we are,” is all there is.

So, here I was on a Tuesday night in front of Ci Siamo’s door. I almost walked right past it. I would have if I hadn’t looked up to my left and caught a slight glimpse of the dark awning. Despite these obstacles, intrepid foodies in New York have found Ci Siamo. The 160-seat indoor and patio restaurant with an event room on the third floor has been packed since it opened nine months ago.

A week night was no exception. The restaurant was buzzing with activity from diners’ conversations. The open kitchens (Ci Siamo has two kitchens: one dessert stand and a sommelier station) teemed with cooks preparing the orders and entertaining guests for those who were paying attention. Servers weaved in and out and around tables as they delivered the plates filled with portions ready to share. The bar and lounge area were also full.

The wood décor is warm and inviting. The service is impeccable and friendly.

From my table, I watched Sterling busy along the counter at the back kitchen to ensure each plate was perfect.

I struggled to find anything that I was not particularly crazy about beyond finding the restaurant in this revived part of Manhattan. All I can think about is returning to taste more of Sterling’s authentic Italian creations.

Now through August 19 is a great time to experience Ci Siamo. Along with other USHG restaurants, Ci Siamo is serving a special prix fixe menu during NYC Summer Restaurant Week, and the terrace is open for drinks and outdoor dining. Other participating restaurants — Gramercy Tavern, Marta, Porchlight, The Modern, and Union Square Café — are offering special menus through August 21. Check with the restaurant.