First and foremost, let me apologize. Unlike a regular restaurant review, I’m not able to return to the restaurant several times to try the entire menu and create a response based on the culmination of several experiences. I ate at AeroNuova once and paid for it out-of-pocket. I did so anonymously and present to you my thoughts after exactly one meal. If this bothers you, I encourage you to skip the review. If you don’t care, read on and enjoy.
If you’ve never flown in or out of JFK’s Terminal 5, then you’re missing out. JetBlue operates all of their JFK flights out of the terminal and as their flagship hub, they’ve done it up quite nicely. One of the major upgrades they made when the terminal reopened in 2008 was bringing in big name New York chefs to open sit-down restaurants and one of those restaurants is AeroNuova from Mark Ladner of Manhattan’s Michelin-starred pasta palace Del Posto.
While the rest of the country is still joining the “let’s bring decent restaurants to the airport” trend, JFK has gotten it right for a while and AeroNuova is a great example. It’s a sit-down, full-service restaurant with a really solid menu. Appetizers, pastas, pizzas, sandwiches, and four main entrees are all available for your dining pleasure. I’d file it squarely under “Elevated Italian-American classics.” These are dishes that you’ve most likely tried elsewhere, done with high-quality ingredients and more skill than I’d expect in an airport kitchen. I didn’t get a clean shot of the menu (sorry), so check out these different angles to get the whole picture:
The restaurant itself isn’t much to look at. It’s part of the main collection of restaurants at T5 and looks more like a mall store from the outside. There’s “outdoor seating,” which means you’re watching people cart around rollerboards in harsh lighting outside of the restaurant in the center of the terminal, but I opted to eat in the restaurant itself. It’s fairly unremarkable, but that’s kind of what you want in an airport restaurant. Dark, but not too dark. A full bar with TVs to keep solo travelers occupied. The chairs — and I can’t emphasize this enough — were amazing. Great back support. Since I was coming off a major flight from Morocco and enduring a six-hour layover, these chairs made the whole dining experience even more pleasant.
While the room may be unremarkable, the service was, surprisingly, incredible. My server was available but not overwhelming. When I needed more parmesan or chili flakes, they were on the table within moments. Water was refilled regularly. Food arrived quickly. I was truly impressed. I’ve definitely eaten at airport restaurants where the staff seems like they’re angry to be serving you crabcakes, so this was a nice touch. On to the food!
I had just spent a week in Morocco eating tagines for nearly every meal, so I wanted comfort food. To me, that includes fried calamari and rigatoni bolognese. A lot of food for one man, yes, but knowing that I was only going to have one shot at the review, I wanted to try as much as I could stomach.
The calamari arrived within minutes and I was thrilled at the version in front of me. The calamari came with a light semolina breading that didn’t flake off instantly like bad calamari breading has a tendency to do. It was a little on the greasy side, but nothing beyond the boundaries of what deep fried food can and should be. The best bonus is that in addition to the squid, there were also fried pieces of cherry peppers that provided a perfect vinegar punch to the dish. Marinara comes on the side and it’s got a great basil flavor, although it’s served cold. I would have much preferred a warm side of sauce in which to dip, or at least a cold side of cocktail sauce, but that’s a personal preference. Overall, I’d definitely order this again. The calamari tasted fresh, it was fried but not overly breaded, and those cherry peppers really did the trick for me.
By the time my main course arrived, I was already filling up, but I needed to erase the memory of the meal on my Royal Air Maroc flight, so I dug right in. I was leaning towards the cavatelli with sausage and broccoli rabe, but my server steered me towards the rigatoni bolognese and I’m glad he did. It was a gleaming example of what the dish can be.
The pasta itself was supple and wonderfully al dente with just the right amount of chew in every bite. The sauce was rich but not overwhelmingly so, with enough meat in the sauce to know it’s there but not too much to the point where you feel like you’re eating pasta in a bowl of chili. There was a pinkish hue to the sauce that makes me think enough butter was added to alter the color and I’m not mad at that at all. I devoured the whole plate, despite not being hungry anymore and knowing that I had another meal coming up quickly in JetBlue’s Mint Class.
I have no idea if Mark Ladner spends any time here anymore. All I know is that whoever is overseeing this kitchen deserves a round of applause for maintaining a landside level of quality at a restaurant that you can only enjoy if you’ve got a plane ticket. I hope to get back to JFK soon to try more items on the menu. Those pizzas are calling my name…