June 1, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
The Greening of Locanda Verde

Lamb meatball sliders and the lush whipped ricotta are great starters. Photo: Steven Richter

Lamb meatball sliders and the lush whipped ricotta are great starters. Photo: Steven Richter

        I was cranky at first.  It was warm outside and growing more humid. I wanted air conditioning.  I wanted a quieter table. I didn’t want that table with the doors thrown open to the sidewalk as vibrant and inviting as it made Locanda Verde seem.  I wanted something deep inside in frosted air.  The smiling hostess suddenly donned a bad news face. “We aren’t using the air conditioning tonight,” she said.

        Are you Barbarians? I thought. And then maybe, I thought, if I sit down and stop being obnoxious and annoyed, I’ll cool down. But first I had to wash subway germs from my hands. A server pointed down the stairs.

        “You must have an elevator,” I said in that voice, ready to call a district attorney if she said no. 

        Through the lobby, she directed. I descended to the spa. On one door was a disc with a hole in the middle.  On another, a disc with a 2-inch protuberance. Maybe I blinked but then I got it and decided to be offended as soon as I got my hand-washing dispensed with.  The ladies’ room was dark and I could not read the labels, but I could see the lotion on my right was hand cream.  I pump the bottle on my left and wash my hands with mouth wash.  I try not to laugh.  I need to be really angry.  I try yet another dispenser.  Soap. At least it feels like it.

Locanda Verde’s café area beckons for cocktails at sunset. Photo: Steven Richter

        I retrace my steps, glance again at the empty shabby-chic lobby, and find the restaurant door. I had tried to be anonymous, letting my friend use her pull to get a table on the second night of already buzzing Locanda Verde, but for some reason tall men are calling me by my first name. I find my seat in the evening’s growing dim, study the soaring ceiling, what I imagine to be soundproofing, cars passing in the reflection of overhead mirrors, the slightly urban rustic room, only a little bit too dark, and begin to fall in love.  Big fat triangles of foccaccia soaked with thin tomato sauce and just faintly crisped on the edges add to my emotional vulnerability. 

With doors flung open to the street, the kitchen is like a stage set. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s possible that the management team here is more celebrated than tonight’s VIPs and visiting foodies. Clearly Robert DeNiro and his partners at the Greenwich Hotel mean business.  Ago’s quick wilt in this same space spurred them to up the odds. From the cast of characters alone, it’s looking like a sure thing. A Voce’s much admired Andrew Carnellini in the long open kitchen. Ken Friedman of Spotted Pig and John Dory recruiting the team and restaging the room.  Josh Picard of Lure, Mercer Bar and Chinatown Brasserie stirring the mix as a front man. DeNiro is nowhere to be seen but he’s as big a presence as Bobby Flay at the next table, Steve Hanson in a corner with Pat La Frieda’s seductive meat marketeer Mark Pastore, Josh Ozersky arriving latish, Food and Wine’s Kate Krader somewhere in the shadows and Restaurant Girl.

If it’s amatriciana anything, Steven must have it.  Photo: Steven Richter

        I love everything I’m tasting on that first visit:  tangy whipped sheep’s milk ricotta with sea salt and herbs to spread on toasted country bread that I order for the table, Carmellini’s famous duck meatballs morphed into lamb meatball sliders with goat cheese (we split the two minis in half for four) and tender little calamari stuffed with yogurt and mint – although three puny torsos seem rather meager for $14. The Road Food Warrior is pleased with properly al dente spaghetti with lamb amatriciana – he must have amatriciana wherever we find it – and I am totally seduced by the chef’s handmade “farfalle” – pasta butterflies with clams, sweet pepper and chorizo – even though it has lost the chorizo by the time all my companions have tasted and pass it along to me.  Pastas are prudently, gently priced at $14 to $17 with entrees $19 to $26 but three modest sea scallops Pugliese with rapini and chickpeas look pretty chintzy. Rich braised beef short ribs in cacciatore sauce would be wonderful even without their charmingly rustic casserole.  

Juicy short ribs are served in a rustic casserole.  Photo: Steven Richter

        When prize-winning pastry chef Karen DeMasco left Craft in 2008 after seven years creating desserts for Tom Collicchio’s growing empire, she talked about doing a place of her own. But here she is, turning out market-inspired dolce like toasted almond semifreddo with Bing cherries and sheep’s milk ricotta panna cotta with strawberries and rhubarb. Her “dolce” plate has lush melting chocolate biscotti, sugar-dusted walnut dreams, marvelous peanut butter cookies and exotic fruit gels. As the only sweet lover at my table, I am not obliged to share and get to taste everything.

“Homey” to me is more generous than three little squid torsos. Photo: Steven Richter

        I didn’t see the place before Friedman was let loose but what I see now is clubby, relaxed and appealing. “It needed to be about Tribeca,” Friedman tells me, “But you couldn’t see Tribeca till I hung the mirrors high up to reflect the traffic, pulled down the curtains and opened the doors.”  Now he hopes cross ventilation will pick up ocean breezes. 

        “Hudson?” I ask.

        “Atlantic Ocean,” he says. New tables, bare, of course, new chairs, new nooks and crannies, a laidback café for locals to linger over coffee, a pastry and the newspaper. “I softened it with chotchkes,” he confides. “Added vines in tomato cans. Actually, I should bring in some more chotchkes,” he reminds himself. 

        I can’t wait to go back. I’m thinking about that food a lot. One week later, it’s raining, the jaunty fling of open doors is past.  No surprise, it’s noisier, a full house, big cheeses of the food world standing at the bar waiting for a vacancy. Chotchkes shaping up. A greeter thoughtfully shuffles us off to the lobby next door to wait in serenity.  It has a western feel, like a hotel lobby in a small Montana town. Now we are summoned.  Our party has arrived and we dive into the melee, six of us tonight, crowded around a table that doesn’t quite fit.  Our server announces that plates are meant to share.

        “How would you divide two meatball sliders for six people?” I ask.

        “You would probably get two orders,” she pops back cheerfully.

        “In other words, all dishes are not right for sharing,” I pronounce as if it’s a new Supreme Court ruling.  But the whipped ricotta to spread on toast is perfect to share, and an order and a half of two different crostini specials, each carefully divided in half by our designated carver, chases my grumps. But eggplant with mozzarella and the fava bean with scanty prosciutto are equally splendid.  

        And of course we will share pastas.  Maltagliata “badly cut” shards of noodles with pesto, the robiola-filled ravioli with spring mushrooms and vermouth and a reprise of the delicious homemade farfalle exhibit a richness Carmellini is famous for. Broccoli rabe sausage with beans, an order of porchetta and sensational garlic-roasted chicken for two turns out to be more than enough for four. Admittedly, I’m disappointed at how meager our pork dish is, how scanty the curls of crunchy skin. But then a quartet of DeMasco’s splendid desserts sent as a gift sends us off on a high.  The joint is still bubbling.  I feel like I’m leaving a great party too early.

377 Greenwich Street at North Moore 212 925 3797; Monday through Friday, Locanda Verde is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the following hours: 7-11 am breakfast, 11:30-2:45 lunch, and 5:30 to 11 pm dinner. Weekends are for dinner only(5:30 to 11 pm).


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