Hillary Sterling spent much of her summer in the basement of Marta, Union Square Hospitality’s Roman-inspired, wood-fired restaurant on East 29th Street. For months, she tested focaccias and pastas and perfected a citrusy, olive oil-poached insalata di mare; and, finally, Sterling has emerged six avenue blocks west at light-filled, terrace-wrapped, 120-seat Ci Siamo.
Tucked into Hudson Yards’ Manhattan West development, Ci Siamo is USHG’s first restaurant opening since the pandemic, and Sterling, who previously ran the kitchen at Vic’s in Nolita, is the only executive chef in collective USHG memory who’s been recruited from outside the organization. Danny Meyer & Co. brought her onboard when the restaurant vision shifted from fine-dining to fun, bold and welcoming.
“We have a shiny exterior but a soulful interior,” says Sterling, a born and raised Brooklynite, who has also worked at Lupa, with Missy Robbins at A Voce, and for a short time at Beatrice Inn. “You can’t change me just because you put me in something shiny and new. I’ve survived in downtown grit for so many years. And Danny knows that. That’s why I’m here.”
Ci Siamo translates to “here we are,” and USHG’s opening narrative centers on dinner as a journey—one presumably delayed and longed for after New York’s hellish last year and half. Suspending disbelief, I followed Sterling’s directions to the restaurant. After riding the C north, I walked through the grand-spanking-new Moynihan Train Hall, passing departure boards listing trains to Palm Beach and pausing beneath Kehide Wiley’s stained glass ceiling on 33rd Street. I wandered through a scented faux-lemon-grove-as-art-installation in Manhattan West’s plaza (“I’m calling it a piazza in my world here,” says Sterling) and eventually found Ci Siamo looking very much like a modest storefront.
It’s not Italy, but it does feel good to be wrapped up in purposeful, transportive design, courtesy of Goodrich. The restaurant’s entryway doors are soundproof, instantly sealing guests off from the city and directing their attention to the chatter and noise of the second floor dining room, accessed via a staircase as metaphor for a winding mountain road. “You have no idea what’s on the other side. It’s very dramatic,” says Sterling.
At the top of the stairs, diners will find a windowed wine room, lounge seating, vintage Italian burlwood cabinets, a bar focusing on aperitivi and Martinis, and Tom Piscitello, a long time New York restaurant figure and Ci Siamo’s maître d’hôtel. “Tom is one of those amazing last maître d’s out there,” says Sterling. “He knows half of New York.” (“The bottom half,” clarifies Piscitello.)
You can get the full menu in this front room, but the lounge is designed for antipasti: platters of mortadella and prosciutto, crisp-tender cast iron focaccia with tomato conserva and airy, Pop-Tart sized gnocco fritto lined with melted goat gouda and rolled in a heavy dusting of cacio e pepe seasoning. There’s also a gauntlet-throwing anchovy toast (named pizza bianca to tempt the anchovy averse) inspired by a dish Sterling ate in Verduna in Italy’s Piedmont. She covers freshly pizza-oven-baked bread with a slick of aïoli, fresh salsa verde, melting Spanish anchovies and pickled sweet Senise peppers.
Diners familiar with Sterling’s cooking at Vic’s will recognize the big flavors, rollicking contrast and no-fear-fat in plates like these. Sterling says she’s not reinventing herself for Ci Siamo. Instead, she’s cooking with fewer constraints, lots of fire and from a much more prominent platform. After all, she can see the Empire State building from her lounge.
Guests can also see almost all of Ci Siamo’s cooks and operations in action. It’s a restaurant turned inside out with the antipasti, pastry, coffee and wine service stations exposed. White jacket-clad cooks walk through the dining room with trays of bread and pastries. Even the dishwashers and pasta dough makers, barely hidden in the back, have windows that let daylight filter in. (And in the name of transparency, with its no-tipping policy eliminated since June, USHG says it has moved to narrow its front and back of house wage gap “by providing everyone in the kitchen a revenue share in addition to increasing their base wages,” which they project will increase back of house pay by 25 percent.)
The main event, though, is in the dining room proper, ringed by terra cotta tiles and a charcoal mural depicting thistles, cardoons and grapes of ancient Rome. At the center is Ci Siamo’s fire power: a wood-burning grill, the pasta station and Sterling (with her signature chunky glasses and grey curls) expediting.
Her taglioni, scantily clad in buffalo butter and onion-scented tomato sauce, is a restaurant ode to the Marcella Hazan classic. The rapini agnolotti are Sterling’s answer to Vic’s greatest-hit borsa; the oblong pockets have the same tension of delicate pasta, steam and waiting-to-burst filling, just with punchy cruciferous contributing to the balancing act. Ci Siamo’s contorni appear mid-menu rather than bottom-of-the-list-purgatory so diners won’t miss this season’s braised shelling beans with olives and smoky-sweet-spicy delicata squash.
New York’s Milanese have grown larger and flashier in the last few years, and at Ci Siamo, Sterling’s team pounds a whole pork tenderloin into a 10-inch circle, encases it in a crispy, caraway-flecked coat, and finishes the dish with umami-jacked bagna cauda aïoli and dill for a breath of fresh air. There’s also a pine nut and mustard green-stuffed whole trout, a schmaltzy half roasted chicken and a showstopping, 45-oz. bistecca Fiorentina (for guests in a particularly celebratory mood, Sterling suggests pairing the steak with an ice-cold Martini and smoked potatoes with whipped pecorino).
The wine list from sommelier Robin Wright will start off at 450 bottles, mostly accessibly priced and designed to highlight off-the-beaten path producers. But for bistecca Fiorentina nights, there are also cult-y super Tuscans and old Barolos.
One of this year’s only pleasant staffing surprises was Claudia Fleming’s return to USHG. The veteran pastry chef worked with Sterling many a day in the Marta basement, figuring out how to pack as much hazelnut flavor as possible into gelato and taste testing coffees for espresso stracciatella. Now guests finish their meals with generous bowls of both, along with amaro-spiked chocolate bomboloni and mascarpone cheesecake. The restaurant is also sending chewy, soft amaretti cookies for guests to take back home, or wherever they’re going from here.