August 8, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

A Movie Date @Nick & Toni’s Cafe

Caramelized onions on crustiest chicken livers, a house signature. Photo: Steven Richter
Caramelized onions on crustiest chicken livers, a house signature. Photo: Steven Richter

       “Why don’t we ever go to Nick & Toni’s Cafe right here in town?” I ask the Road Food Warrior. “It’s half a block from our favorite movie theater on Broadway. Perfect when we get bored with all our usual after-movie hangouts.”

        “Maybe we don’t like it,” he replies.

        “I don’t remember why we don’t like it.” It’s been pretty much ignored by us since it bloomed in 1994, a seed of the East Hampton hottie we love. But now we have a courtesy call to make on West 67th Street and we emerge still hungry.  Here it is, half a block away. Very welcoming, with tall arched windows and doggie biscuits in a bowl at the door.

I like watching  passersby and wind ruffled leaves through arched windows. Photo: Steven Richter

       Inside, a curl of flame in the copper oven, and a cook tending a pizza with a long wooden paddle, are reminders of pies and whole grilled fish with the perfume of smoke we still remember from dinners at the shore.

        Wallpaper gives it a quaint country cottage feel, unrelated to frescoes of flowers and palms not reminiscent of anything, except perhaps Tennessee Williams’ plays off-off-Broadway.

There’s a bar menu too and pizzas or chicken, whole fish from the oven. Photo: Steven Richter

       The guy at the desk seems almost too good looking for this rather modest joint, not quite George Clooney -- ironic, but not that ironic -- very handsome indeed. An actor maybe, happy to see a couple of new customers on a drowsy Monday evening. He leads us to a tiny two-top. Steven asks for a four.

        “Let me push these tables together so you can sit side by side” he says, pushing and shoving.  “Try not to get too amorous,” he counsels, leaving behind menus on two clipboards with assorted information: the $35 prix fixe on top, a card offering dinner with a movie voucher for $28 and underneath, the à la carte menu.

        “Wanna go to a movie?” Steven asks.

        “Maybe not tonight. It’s a voucher…good anytime.”

Sweet crab lumps play against tomato tang in this prix fixe pasta. Photo: Steven Richter

       For some reason I’m in an uncommon mood for rosé tonight. Sultry night, maybe.  Or possibly because the rosé touted on the menu is called Pink Floyd. “That’s because Pink Floyd did a concert at the vineyard,” our waiter offers.  “I’m getting you bread and olives right now,” he announces with a glance that seems to say, “Coming up. Just for you. Something special.”

        We wait longer than “right now.” Are they curing the olives just for us? Okay, at last: good olives, a splash of olive oil from Sicily, crusty bread, just sliced. That’s a point. Also the generous portions.

        I am a major chicken liver fan. I love them shaken with flour in a brown paper bag, sautéed in butter, caramelized but bloody rare.  These on the $35 prix fixe, obviously a house specialty, are amazingly crusty, tossed with caramelized onions and frisée, sweet and nutty against the bitter green. Not exactly my rare, but delicious and rare enough I’d never win if I sued.

        And the big lumps of crab, wood roasted local tomatoes and wilted arugula strands in my spaghetti play rich crab sweetness against acidy tang, followed by an after-kick from hot pepper flakes.

Penne alla Vecchia Bettola has passionate fans including Steven. Photo: Steven Richter

       Steven’s romaine with Caesar dressing on the movie dinner is good enough (anchovy so subtle it’s a thought more than a taste) but I’m wild for his penne alla Vecchia Bettola. Long-roasted canned tomatoes with onion and garlic are rounded out with vodka and a dash of cream. Granted the dish is slightly over-sauced, I’m forgiving that for how it plays on my tongue, with its suave texture and chili heat.

        The waiter had urged Steven to choose it.  “It’s so popular if we ever took it off the menu, there would be riots in the street,” he says. Actually it’s an old fallback favorite we remember from the East Hampton hive.

        Since the mother ship’s chef Joe Realmuto is in charge here, the Tuscan and Provençal airs seem familiar. Chef de Cuisine Juan Juarez can shop in the local greenmarket two blocks away for favas, peas and lettuces.

The pizzette will do but it’s not a pizza. Indeed, no pizzas on weekends.  Photo: Steven Richter

       What a difference a week makes. We return with friends on a Friday night. There’s a new face at the podium, minus the grace, the charm and the hint of George Clooney. Even the doggy bowl has been neglected.  Mr. Personality the waiter is gone. His replacement is just a guy-in-a-rush.  The pizza and a movie menu is only available Sunday and Monday. Indeed, you can’t get pizza at all on weekends, when the oven is reserved for roasted fish, birds and Berkshire pork chops. We’re spending $300 to feed our not very thirsty four.

        Mouth set for pizza, Steven makes do with grilled pizzette topped with fontina, arugula, black olives and a fried egg.  It comes on a cutting board with a pizza cutter tucked underneath and he divides it to share with the table. Not that it isn’t a pleasant mouthful, as is the greenmarket chopped salad with bits of sausage and aged provolone, though both seem expensive to me at $16, as does $24 for orecchiette pasta with home made sausage, and the very tough $30 grilled skirt steak.

Tough but rare, grilled skirt steak with greenmarket arugula. Photo: Steven Richter

       This is not a white-washed country house in East Hampton with a thousand Mercedes parked outside and a scattering of media stars, Oscar nominees and aging literacracy.  It’s a faded little bistro on a side street, perfect for an early dinner before the concert or the ballet or to gather fans and friends after a film at Walter Reade, as John Turturro seems to have done tonight. The very lightly grilled calamari with preserved lemon on the $35 prix fixe is enough for all of us to share, though the Migliorelli Farms baby escarole is one tough leaf. Orecchiette on the fixed dinner becomes reasonable. Local sea bass is fine if you don’t mind fish very firm, even dry.

I’ll be back for Amish chicken with Yukon golds, house-cured pancetta. Photo: Steven Richter

       But I’ll be back for the Amish chicken just out of the oven with roasted Yukon Golds – even the breast is blissfully juicy, though I’d trade big, scarcely chewable chunks of house-cured pancetta for smaller cubes to maximize the piggy accent and save on chewing.

Take fabulous chocolate budino over this Napoleon with raspberries. Photo: Steven Richter

       As I pour a cup of espresso over the vanilla gelato of the affogato that comes with my discount dinner, I remember that I never drink coffee anymore after lunch. The espresso blends brilliantly with the added caffeine of chocolate sauce and I surrender to possible insomnia, finishing the soft cookie dough of my friend’s fabulous caramel chocolate tart with Tuscan olive oil, savoring crystals of Maldon salt.  I plan to read till I fell asleep and then dream about John Turturro.  

100 West 67th Street between Colombus Avenue & Broadway. 212.496.4000.  Monday through Thursday 12 to 10:30 pm; Friday and Saturday till 11:00 pm. Sunday till 10:00 pm.


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