Salmon tartare is among the small plates served at Vinoco...

Salmon tartare is among the small plates served at Vinoco in Mineola. (June 23, 2011) Credit: Yana Paskova

A year ago, it seemed as if Long Island couldn't accommodate another small-plates restaurant. Then a dozen more opened. Now, small plates threaten Asian fusion as the most pervasive local dining trend.

Indeed, small plates have become a nationwide phenomenon. According to Bret Thorn, senior food editor at the trade magazine Nation's Restaurant News, "Diners are looking to trade down from full meals to multicourse meals," he said. "Besides a desire to save money, Americans are more interested in trying new things."

Some of Long Island's small plateries, such as España in St. James, draw their inspiration from traditional tapas, the bar-snacks of Spain. Café Buenos Aires in Huntington adds an Argentine twist. Lola in Great Neck serves an array of innovative global tapas. Salumi in Massapequa is particularly strong on cured meats and cheeses.

Huntington's Ichiz skews Asian, while Lula in Mineola looks to the Mediterranean. Both offer small plates exclusively, but more of the newest places -- Five.Five 2 in St. James, Toast & Tapas in Syosset, Savoy Tavern in Merrick, Heirloom Tavern in Glen Head, Roots Bistro Gourmand in West Islip -- offer plates small and large.

What is a small plate?

Many cuisines have a tradition of small plates, Thorn said. "Meze in the Middle East, antipasti in Italy, even a lot of traditional bar food -- wings, cheese fries -- in the United States." But it's tapas, Spain's little plates, that "really got people's attention here."

True tapas are simple dishes that require little preparation; the point is that a busy bartender can slice a bit of ham, or spoon some shrimp into a bowl so you have something to nosh while you sip your sherry. On these shores, small plates are more likely to be scaled-down portions of anything: sliders, pasta, sushi, salad, pork belly, fried calamari. "A small plate, an appetizer, a side dish -- it's really a matter of marketing," Thorn said.

The distinctions, or lack thereof, can be maddening. To Robin Hazan of Port Washington, an enthusiastic and frequent restaurantgoer, "every place seems to have its own definition of small plate. Is it just an appetizer? Is there enough to share or is it barely enough for one person? How many am I going to need to make a meal? The genre has become a little abstract."

Another much-debated issue is whether small plates necessarily add up to a small check. Ralph DiGennaro, a freelance writer and creator of the gastronomic gang Suffolk County Bon Vivant Society, has observed that small plates "can be a good value if two of you share a few small plates and then maybe split an entree, but if you're not careful, you can really rack up a bill."

Small is beautiful

The decision to serve small plates has many wellsprings. Lula Dalipi, managing partner at Lula Trattoria, said: "I love to pick. My favorite meal is a little of this, a little of that." That's exactly what Ralph DiGennaro is looking for."You spend $28 on a plate of pasta that serves four and you're forced to eat it at home for the next three days," he said. "I prefer quality to quantity and would prefer smaller portions of more interesting things."lula

James Orlandi, co-owner-manager of Roots Bistro Gourmand, said, "We use small plates to introduce new ingredients and preparations in an accessible way."

At 7 years old, Huntington's Café Buenos Aires is one of Long Island's longest-running small-plates shows. "My original idea was to do only tapas," said managing partner Hugo Garcia, who first encountered Spanish small plates in his native Argentina. "But we have a lot of space here," he said, "and we couldn't be a classic tapas restaurant." In Buenos Aires' 26-seat bar area, tapas rule. In the dining room, customers are more likely to start with small plates and progress to entrees. But, Garcia said, "There are always people who start in the bar, move into the dining room and say, 'We just want more tapas.'"

When small is too small

When Michael Esposito opened Vero in Amityville in late 2010, the Italian menu was composed mostly of small plates. "As many people loved it, that's how many didn't love it," he said. "They liked the appetizers, but then they wanted their full portion of pasta, their rack of lamb."

Vero was shuttered by fire in May 2011 and reopened this past October. Now the menu has an extensive range of small plates -- salumi, cheese, plus about 20 "piattini" (little plates) -- then moves on to regular-size pastas and mains. "People who sit in the bar tend to do the small plates," Esposito said, "but most of our customers treat them like appetizers and then order a full-size pasta or entree. Now everyone is happy."

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