August 10, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

       Caravaggio Deconstructed

Too much creativity leads to skewered snails with sweet onion. Photo: Steven Richter

         Neighbors from the zipcode were waiting out front to get in the night Caravaggio opened in the long narrow room that used to be Coco PazzoSistina regulars who think of Giuseppe Bruno as their own uptown Sirio were also eager to see what he had created in the space where Pino Luongo coddled music world and political nabobs in another era. One week later, with the place still not quite unwrapped, a big artwork has yet to arrive and the kitchen is uneven.

        “We’re turning people away,” says our waiter. But not all of Bruno’s devotees are pleased.

        “What is this?” they ask, gawking at an artful presentation.  “Is it French?”

  Garganelli with gorganzola and spinach is meekly garlick'd. Photo: Steven Richter

        They could be contemplating the evening’s “amuse,” a dried-out curl of house-smoked salmon on a nerdy pouf of apple pear cream. It’s a long way from the Amalfi Coast where the Bruno brothers were born, a long way from San Pietro, their popular midtown stand, a strange stretch to the Sistina gang that has kept the Second Avenue spot vital since it opened in July 1984.

        “It doesn’t have to be French to look good on the plate,” Bruno defends himself on the phone a few days later.  “It’s the new Italian food, what many restaurants are doing now in Italy.  It doesn’t have to always be the same regional food, it can be modern and new.”

I admire this wonderful Donald Baechler paper on the bar area. Photo: Steven Richter

        Waiting in the entry for our table to clear, I admire the wonderful Donald Baechler paper and cloth on canvas and the artist’s quirky sculpture sitting on the bar.  Seated inside, the coved ceiling seems to be soundproofed and it’s light enough to read the menu – big points for two rare blessings – but I miss a certain intimacy I remember from Coco Pazzo. The room with its textured silk wallpaper and black leather-sheathed chairs feels unfinished and not because the back wall is bare with a small sign stating: “Artwork Coming Soon.” It’s probably not fair to dismiss so much elegance with nostalgia for the swiveling heads frenzy of Coco Pazzo.

        “I’m sorry,” I find myself apologizing to our companions. “I didn’t realize it was so expensive.” These days I don’t enlist friends to share the bill for antipasti that cost $22 or more and entrees $32 to $45 without at least a warning.  “I thought it would be neighborhood Italian,” I explain. Obviously, I forgot to calculate the neighborhood. I could name half a dozen places nearby even more expensive, including one that refuses to take credit cards. Raves for Sistina are usually punctuated by “but ridiculously expensive.” Well, if it’s wonderful tonight, we’ll call it a splurge.

Spinach and bread gnocchi with veal reduction is a hit. Photo: Steven Richter

        And spinach and bread gnocchi in a veal and sage reduction scattered with a rubble of cheese pleases the gnocchi lovers at our table, including me. I really like the house-made garganelli with gorgonzola and spinach, even though so timid a dose of garlic is annoying. Pan-seared cod with red peppers and artichokes in chive sauce needs less cooking and more seasoning, but I’d be content with the roasted half chicken with clumsy foie gras ravioli and jumbo green asparagus. 

Seafood in uni cream. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’d hope that when and if the kitchen finds its mojo, the two luscious scallops of the antipasto di mare with uni cream would get the intense sea urchin-scented sauce they deserve. I like a little hit of chili in my fettucine all'Amatriciana. Meanwhile, big slices of bacon rescue a tame tomato sauce.  I’m a big vittello tonnato fan – some think the veal trumps the tuna – but I want super rich tuna cream of mayonnaise.  And lots of it, not this skimpy little blob.


Fettucine all'Amatriciana is larded with big slices of bacon. Photo: Steven Richter

        The staff is well meaning – like family retainers in that classic New York Italian waiter way – even before someone recognizes me. Nice to see Bruno and his younger brother Cosimo haven’t modernized that away.  But at this stage, Caravaggio is all too new and conceptual to hold up to a magnifying glass.  Anything can happen as early responders tell Bruno how they want to eat Italian.  And it’s not too soon to abandon skewered snails with sweet onion and cherry tomatoes, which carries creativity beyond the snail’s pale.

It’s rare these days to see a room as boldly lit as Caravaggio. Photo: Steven Richter

        We order one dessert and four forks.  In response the kitchen sends out one small pre-dessert.  The waiter parks it in the middle of the table: Ricotta ice cream with blood orange and tapioca.  For me, it’s a much more lyrical finale than the $15 “triumph of gianduja” – warm chocolate pudding and a less than triumphant crumbled piece of hazelnut cake with goat’s milk ice cream.

        If I’m in the neighborhood, I might peek in to see what Baechler has dreamed up for the back wall.  But Bruno doesn’t really need me. He’s counting on the well-heeled folks who live nearby. “They live on these streets. They are rich. They’re happy we are here,” he says.  “I want to create something new and different where people can dress up and feel elegant again. I don’t like to see people wearing shorts to the theater. Maybe I’m getting old.  I say if people want a great meal and to sit casual, let them go to Sistina.”

23 East 74th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. 212 288 1004. Lunch 12 to 3 pm;  dinner 5 to 10 pm Monday to Saturday; closed Sundays.