February 11, 2008 | Insatiable Critic
Remembering the Princedom of Pasta
Samuel Botero's design inspires sexy Roman fantasies at Orsini's. Photo: Phillip Ennis
Our town's fine dining scene is cruelly dominated now by the haute snobbisme of New York’s grand French restaurants, the snooty le’s and la’s, where an arrogant bourgeoisie of one time cashiers and waiters-turned-captains decide who is not wanted. All my prepping in the truffle fields of France, my many pilgrimages to Michelin three star temples…such credentials mean nothing to these peasants we have given the power of humiliation.
But no problem. When I want to feel appreciated, I go to Orsini’s. I don’t let the outrageous prices ($4.50 for osso buco risotto) make me tense. “Bella signorina,” the captain greets me with unabashed joy. As a stern arbiter of taste, I would never equate a discreet knuckle kiss to great food. Rather, Orsini’s is theater. You could pay as much for an evening on Broadway with only half the dazzle. Lunch upstairs draws Gloria Vanderbilt and Arnold Scaasi; David Merrick with Candace Bergen in a mechanic’s jumpsuit and Malibu tan; Social Moth Jerome Zipkin with Penelope Tree, Golda Meir, Sinatra, Princess Grace, Chagall, Roy Wilkins.
One day Yul Brynner looks around and pokes his wife. “Over there,” he hisses, “Mastroianni.” And at that moment Mastroianni turns to his companion: “Look, it’s Yul Brynner.” In his all-seeing “Eye” column in Women’s Wear Daily, John Fairchild writes: “I don’t go there to eat the people.” The rest of us do.
I have a crush on Armando Orsini. He’s the Adonis of the two brothers, dark and solid. He vibrates with Italianosity, kissing hands, kissing fingertips, kissing cheeks He is so Italian it would never occur to him that he isn’t really in love with woman, women, all of us.
That does not mean triage is not required. Orsini rules require assigning the siliconed beauties and the faithful to front tables in the flattering filtered daylight that grimes greyly through the thick of 56th Street. What are we if not the willing victims of New York table games? Here Dun & Bradstreet and the SocIal Register do not count.
So don’t dwell on visions of great food. Go for the psychic lift, the electricity of pheromones mingling, to get something to eat because it’s one o’clock. It’s like going home for lunch. Oscar de la Renta is dieting. What can he eat? Papa Armando urges him to eat raw meat -- filet, sliced very thin, like prosciutto, with lemon, olive oil, and fresh cracked pepper ($5.50 at lunch, $6 at dinner). One day, successfully trim, Oscar disappears, back to the buttery at La Grenouille, I imagine. Orsini shrugs. Oscar will be back. The point I’m making about my beloved Orsini's: it doesn’t matter what the menu says. Just tell the captain what you want.
Stick to pasta if you’re inclined to be a little fussy (gnocchi al pesto, $3.75). Fettucine is what the gym-trim ladies eat, usually properly al dente. Marylou Whitney’s noodles are sprinkled with parmagiana grated before her very eyes. The back-room folk get flurries spooned from a steel bowl, nearly as fresh, I have no doubt, but we do feel slighted. It’s the indulgence that counts. With your pasta order a salad of tartly dressed arugula, sandy or not as the kitchen variously offers, with wine in carafe, Soave Montresor ($2.50 the half-liter). This will make a modest little lunch that can’t possibly distract you from a lover, confidante or the passing Satyricon…or separate you from more than $18 for two.
If upstairs at lunch is “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” dinner downstairs is Old Black Magic: red velvet, wrought iron, shaded candles, Armando in black tie and ruffled white, overseeing the swift portioning of the cannelloni. Mozzarella in carrozza ($2.75), Italy’s glorified grilled cheese sandwich, is a promising starter. As might be predicted, the garlicky baked clams ($2.75) are safer than woebegone scampi, ossified in too much herb-scented oil ($2.75). The scent of Sterno, a listless tomato sauce, a soggy cutlet in the veal parmagiana, sandy greens again, an excessively oily dressing. For all these complaints, I will say I think of the evening as exciting and worth the $98.35 with tip. The candlight. The pretty people. The caring service. I know it’s not very Commission Against Discrimination but I will always love French restaurants where everyone is French and Italian restaurants that are Italian from coat check to bus boy and Greek where you think you are in Greece.
Orsini’s as we see it today in 1968 grew out of an expensive little coffee house architectural engineer Armando Orsini opened in 1953 to amuse himself after hours spent erecting schools in Astoria and apartment buildings in the Bronx. Tennis chums and ski pals flocked in and because Orsini’s tennis and ski buddies happened to be Aly Khan and Rubirosa and drugstore cowboys of that ilk, success was instant. Special friends took to lounging at tiny tables in the back room and when they got hungry, Orsini served spaghetti.
Then the building was condemned. Knowing how his pets would hate change, Orsini the engineer copied the old space with all its quirks and curves next door. One day Orsini’s closed. Next day it reopened at 41 West 56th Street and no one seemed to notice that the front door was a few feet east of where it had been. Now he is focused on what could become a franchise empire, La Pasta. Pasta keeps beautifully, he points out. And “We are experimenting with fast-freezing our sauces.”
I get a chill just thinking of it.
Where We Eat Now
Everyone – VIP or parvenu – endures the torturous overbooking equally at Café Chauveron, my French favorite and inevitable destination for the ethereal moules au Chablis glacées…Andre Surmain captures the essence of France at Lutèce in his townhouse home, with his chef import, Andre Soltner, sculpting schooners in toast…Not so long ago the cashier at Le Pavillon and Henri Soule’s mistress, Mme. Henriette Spalter dictates the rules of propriety at La Côte Basque, making Linda Bird Johnson strip off the forbidden pants and eat in a paper skirt. I follow the reign of this restaurant terror in Women’s Wear Daily
The service is crisply Fred Astaire at the Four Seasons (as Joe Baum envisioned it). I always drop by to document the momentous change of seasons -- flora and fauna, upholstery, captains’ jackets, the waiters’ cummerbunds, matchbooks, coat room checks – as James Beard proposes seasonal recipes for the Hungarians in charge…“21” keeps out the riff raff at the door but the Kultur Maven and I prefer the Famous Dairy Restaurant on West 72nd anyway for the cheese blintzes and the whopping slice of mushroom loaf…We line up early to get a booth at The Palm for the best sirloin strip in town, and the fantasy that as ink-stained wretches, we belong surrounded by painted caricatures of Fourth Estate stars.
We can walk to the Great Shanghai on Broadway and 102nd Street for the pressed duck and preserved fruits on ice but in Chinatown it’s always King Wu or Szechuan Taste. Sweets at 2 Fulton Street gets 3 stars from the Times Great God Craig Claiborne but we hang out at the raffish Sloppie Louie’s on the other side of the same building, entrance facing the Fulton Fish Market, sharing a table with strangers for a so-called bouillabaisse…We trade insults with the waiters at the Carnegie Delicatessen, scoring extra pickles and a towering three-decker of turkey, corned beef and tongue with cole slaw and Russian dressing ($1.45) you can barely get your mouth around...Snappy design and the best of the wurst ought to fill up the counter at Zum Zum (another taste thrill from Baum’s fertile imagination). Too bad this town is still so Chock Full ‘o Nuts.