January 28, 1985 | Vintage Insatiable
That’s Italian: The Grand, The Hot, and The New
Little profiteroles of creativity, new taste fixations, and simmering ambition have transformed the Italian restaurant scene in New York since “Honor thy Pasta,” my last marathon tasting of grand Italiana, reported here in 1972. What an innocent moment that was. Buffalo had not yet conspired to send their mozzarella to the New World. Radicchio had not yet been coaxed from the dust. And duck and smoked salmon were too hoity-toity to become involved with the likes of spaghettini.
If the strict traditionalists among Italian restaurateurs feel a bit exploited these days, it’s no wonder. Avast infiltration of French and American chefs are doing arcane magic with homemade angel-hair, and insolent, delicious perversities with ravioli. There is no frutta di mare I’ve ever tasted as ethereal as les tagliatelles aux fruits de mer at Maurice, and few Italian-dreamed confections are as transcendent as les rigatoni aux truffes et foie gras from its new Viva Italia! menu. Our Italian feeding fraternity feels plundered. In its seminars and conventions, America’s Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, a liaison of restaurateurs, struggles to codify twenty centuries of cucina italiana and figure out what to do with it. Shall they be regional? Dare they be daring? There is a healthy suspicion of la nuova cucina. It takes a thick hide to launch kiwi risotto. It takes a chef of grace and taste and superior skills to reinvent, to adapt brilliantly, to borrow with dazzle, even to create.
That’s why our Italian restaurants are mired in fatigued sauces. It must be deadening to do the same 25 veal scaloppine and boned chicken tidbit concoctions for two decades. I would fight to the death rather than give up pesto sauce (though why attempt it out of season?) or fettuccine Alfredo. But there are hundreds of underexploited pastas in the regional repertoire – I know because I read Waverley Root’s The Food of Italy instead of eating when I’m slimming. And if the tomatoes taste like polyester, why must we eat mozzarella with tomato? Why not mozzarella and roasted red peppers – or braised eggplant?
After wading through a thicket of soggy fried zucchini and seas of insipid marinara, having scaled Everests of wet noodles, even succumbed to the ultimate weapon – the earth musk of white truffles, the mystical tartufi… I must confess that my favorite Italian restaurant is still Le Cirque. Oh, but it is Italian. That antic dining room, the rollicking seduction. Yes, the chef is French, the menu devotedly Gallic, but not one has white truffles so early in the fall as Sirio Maccioni. No one stalks the wild porcini more fervently, turns out a more delectable spaghetti primavera, kisses hands with more discreet devotion. Lunch a few weeks ago began with a dab of caviar, buttery Parmesan toast of thick country bread, and fettuccine with a maniacal shower of heady fungus from Sirio’s last precious seven kilos of truffles. Then, time for bollito misto. The chef calls it pot-au-feu – melting brisket, tongue, veal’s head, sausage-poached chicken and root vegetables – and serves it with a tangy green sauce and mustard-tinged fruit, mostarda di frutta. By any name, that’s bollito misto.
There have been moments of bliss in this research: a supernal rack of veal and a perfection of adolescent chicken at Parioli. The shock of tartufo’d bresaola and mascarpone-enriched tonnarelli with truffles at Bravo Gianni. Barbetta’s beautiful bollito misto. Sistina’s balsamic-vinegar-perfumed paillard of veal. Felidia’s tripe in vinaigrette, its fuzi with bitter broccoli and sausage.
The “Grand” and “New” restaurants reviewed here are listed in order of my affection: 4**** extraordinary 3*** excellent; 2**, very good; 1* good. “Hot” restaurants are rated by temperature as well: 4!!!! incendiary; 3!!! inflammable; 2!! torrid; 1! simmering. Price estimates are for four courses – antipasto, half a portion of pasta, entrée, and dessert – plus coffee and a half a bottle of inexpensive wine per person, and include tax and tip.
Parioli Romanissimo *** ½
A good critic vows not to let emotions color judgment. Falling in love, IRS audits, lost umbrella – never mind. Taste buds must remain pure. Still, I am human, and I wanted desperately to hate Parioli Romanissimo. Too tiny, too loved, too snotty. Nearly impossible to book a table without personal recommendation. Three times, I persevered, gained entry, tasted mediocrity. Now Parioli has moved to its own rich little townhouse floor-through on the moneyed block of 81st between Madison and Fifth. No one would call the sedate trappings inspired, but spots cast brilliant auras on fresh flowers. Everything is quietly elegant, though there’s one kinky touch. Flashy paintings star characters named Lady Snake, Blue Angel, and Dr. Thrill, and I find myself offended by a woman’s breast mimicking a champagne cocktail, complete with maraschino cherry.
We have been waiting at the bar for more than an hour. True, there’s been a misunderstanding. Perhaps we arrived early. The maître d’hôtel scolds us. The bartender ignores us. We must ask for a drink. Are we nibbling too many giant macadamia nuts? “If we wait much longer, we should have some fried zucchini.” I suggest. The bartender turns away in disgust. Fried zucchini, indeed. A foursome at the bar, good-naturedly sloshed – “Our reservation was for 9:30,” one confides – is seated just minutes before us, at eleven. Yes, the kitchen can be slow. A trio of well-heeled real-estate developers seem dazed but content as they exit – “Three hours for dinner,” one of them marvels. Yet I see no signs of revolution, not even to protest the tariff here – easily $100 a person. Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronym bask in the perfume of their $55 fettuccine buried beneath an avalanche of fresh white truffle. Everyone is thin and complacent. December air-conditioning is icy. The staff mood is superciliously serious. I want to hate. But the taste buds rule. Twice now, the food has been too splendid… at moments transcendent… blurring the insult.
At last, an Italian restaurant where dinner is a classic drama, entrées are a climactic high, desserts a delicious coda. Never have I tasted veal as supernal as the pink velvet of this rack for two with its broccoli puree. A 21-day-old chicken, the evening’s adolescent special, could not be more delicate or juicy, skin crisply browned, flesh faintly blushing, the black truffles scarcely necessary, it’s much-too-intense sauce easily ignored. A brace of luscious rare quail are graced with crunchy potato disks, their peppery aftertaste a stunner.
Still, it is possible to strike out here. The captain who touts veal zingara couldn’t possibly have tasted it: meat like chewed bubble gum with capers and bits of bell pepper and olive. A mellow Calvados-spiked cream sauce just saves a too-cooked breast of chicken. Neither tortelloni – overgrown tortellini – in a basiled tomato sauce with cream drizzled over at the last minute nor an aristocracy of sea creatures in nests of thin capellini pasta is especially moving. And spaghettini carbonara leaves an unpleasant taste of fat on the tongue. But jalapeño’d spaghettini – and homemade trenette noodles with the nuttiness of tender Black Forest mushrooms accented with broccoli flowers – are memorable.
Among the starters, there may be nothing brilliant about the hot antipasto – the usual mushrooms, shrimp, clams, some quarters of artichoke – but each element has its own unique, deftly seasoned taste. Red and yellow peppers, roasted and sweetly oiled, and fine mozzarella are wreathed in spectacular salad greens. The cold antipasto varies: a gathering of mussels, perfect asparagus, a bit of vitello tonnato or stuffed breast of veal, hearts-of-palm-and-radicchio salad or palm and chicken in exquisite mayonnaise. For me, the carpaccio is too cold, too thin, too elegant, too tasteless, and an overreduced truffle sauce does nothing for garlicky rounds of cotechino sausage.
There are serious cheeses here, as there ought to be. And serious wines – bottles priced up to $4,000, and a few for $20. Parioli habitués like to let Rubrio Rossi choose for them, something new that might not be on the list. Flourless chocolate cake (like a soufflé that’s fallen) and chestnut cake with hot chocolate sauce are worth the splurge. Even the ricotta cheesecake is a winner. And if there are more-celestial macaroons than these melting beauties, I’ve never met one. A chocolate truffle signals finito.
24 East 81st Street.
Felidia *** ½
Felidia makes Italian food taste new again. Sometimes. Felidia is so much better than most every other Italian ristorante around, it’s easy to exaggerate. Keeping enthusiasm in reasonable vein, lets be brutally candid. The service can be wildly erratic – from no greeting at the door to no waiter on the floor. And Felidia can commit cuisinary atrocities along with the rest – e.g. a disk a banal veal buried under a humility of wrinkled peas. But mostly, the gourmand pilgrim is delighted here.
Vowel by vowel, 58th Street between Second and Third has turned Italian. Only a city as hungry as ours could possibly devour all the noodles being tossed on this one strada. And along come Lidia and Felix Bastianich from Istria, north of Venice, by way of Queens. Having seduced the bridge-and-tunnel folk at two successful restaurants there, they brave Manhattan in a handsome setting designed by Studio Morsa (the duo that has almost transformed Little Italy) – exterior dark-wood paneling, etched glass, a discreet brass nameplate. Inside, rustic tile and stucco create a balconied dream cottages in Tuscany (I’m too provincial to dream of cottages in Istria).
The flowers are extravagant and stylish, and cold table heralds deliciousness: fat hams and all sorts of earth and sea delicacies in vinaigrette, exotic salads, even plump ripe cherries in the drear of winter. All the cliché-breakers they scarcely dared in Queens are now daily fare – delicate tripe in vinaigrette or hot alla Fiorentina, risotto black with the ink of cuttlefish, roast suckling pig, and now, game: pheasant, wild boar, and venison.
The scheme is grand. The setting is grand. The prices are grand (unleashed appetites resisting truffles can easily spend $120 and up for two; with prudence, less at lunch). Only Lidia, plump and unassuming (friends say she is shy), and the sometimes erratic service still evoke Queens. But win her to your side and let her indulge you with cautions, suggestions, and special goodies.
The bread alone tells you someone really cares. Not everyone will love the foccacia – thick cakey pizza bread, slightly greasy with a few strands of onion – as much as I do, but no one should miss the Parmesan melted on thick country bread. Prosciutto often tastes like salty plastic wrap, and most salami mimics congealed lard, but the charcuterie in Felidia’s antipasto rustico is splendid, escorted perhaps by wet and mellow fresh mozzarella, chunks of fine parmigiana, and sweet roasted red and yellow peppers. Other winners: Fontina melted atop a hill of soft polenta, and garlicky sausage in a tangle of deliciously bitter broccoli di rape. But how can you miss a sample of the cold table? Sparkling seafood salad, that tantalizing tripe, maybe vitello tonnato, perhaps periwinkles.
Fuzi, a homely curl of egg noodle, is wonderful in game sauce (it can be duck, it can be quail), even more appealing with that biting broccoli di rape, a special one evening. A flat wide cut of pasta called pasutice is tossed with shrimp, mussels, and clams so intense they taste not cooked but simply warmed by the noodle. Slightly tough little dough pockets called tortelli are stuffed with ricotta and Swiss chard, then topped with a dark, heady mushroom glaze. The black risotto is actually pale blue, its cuttlefish chewy and tender.
Sharing a fritto misto one night (after pastas, strangely wet porcini, and a marathon run of the appetizers), we are surprised to find only tenderest rings of squid and tiny canestrelli, scallops with roe attached, tasting vividly of the sea. I might wish it crispier, but nothing could be tastier. At lunch, sharing wild boar, pig, and uccelletti, baby quail from Pennsylvania, I find the pig a bit boring, the boar complex and exciting, the uccelletti delicious mouthfuls. Liver can be textbook perfect. Thrilled to find venison stew, I try to overlook a certain dryness – but overcooked veal, a thin and pricey chop, is unforgiveable.
Zabaglione is made only for two, a classic, $7 with raspberries. There is a chocolate cake with fudgy frosting, and a molded cake-and-cream-froth zuccotto that is a bit like eating a prom dress. Wines, vintage ports, sweet dessert nectars – and cognacs from $6 to $70 a generous splash – are stocked in serious depth.
243 East 58th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. 212 758 1479
Bravo Gianni ***
Not even by a Nijinsky leap of exaggeration could I sell you the setting of Bravo Gianni as grand. Soft lights glow pink on taupe Ultrasuede reflected in smoky mirrors, a stage of no distinction. But Gianni himself is bombastic, bigger than life. He looms over everything, a ruffled Godzilla in floppy bow tie and tux by night, all bristling curls and fusilli sideburns. Noontime, he lumbers around, leviathan in his pristine chef’s whites, wafting truffles under your nose, fondling wild mushrooms, singing his wares, mostly in cheerful chirrups of Italian (whether you speak it or not).
Here he comes now, frilled cuffs caressing his knuckles, lugging a wood case of long-stemmed radicchio, the true, rare, most costly trevisano lettuce, crying, “Bella, Bella, é vero? Si.” The assemblage of fat cats, mesmerized, cannot help but agree. A loyal claque of serious eaters have followed Gianni from Nanni al Valletto maîtredom. They enter here carrying their stomachs lovingly in front of them and loosen their ties, gold garniture flashing, eager for the carbohydrate confrontation.
To keep one and all from starving to death while weighing menu decisions, a huge chunk of excellent parmigiana arrives, and with it, a platter of Italian deli – good prosciutto, salami thins, bresaola. Gianni recognizes me, and his enthusiasm is uncontrollable. He soon has the tabletop groaning with an excess of enticements – buffalo mozzarella on cotton tomatoes doused with a fine olive oil, whole artichokes and tangy tongues of eggplant, pitted olives and roasted green peppers with large slices of raw garlic. Now he’s back with a giant Lazzaroni cookie tin. Inside, a dowry of truffles nest in rice. There are tartufo and tartufa, he insists… male and female. The multi-lumped female scatters her spores. Amazed and enlightened, we are dazzled by bresaola, mountain-dried beef, oil-slathered and earth-perfumed in a coverlet of truffle. How unlikely a marriage! But how sublime.
No one is surprised that Gianni’s half portions of pasta would satisfy a ravenous family of five. When I protest a too obvious seduction, he almost weeps: “But Signora, is assolutamente a mezza porzione, is only half a lobster.” The luxuriously studded seafood linguine is good, as is an expertly soupy but al dente risotto with dried porcini mushrooms, but homemade tonnarelli, thin ribbons of egg noodle, wildly rich with mascarpone cream cheese and a blizzard of white truffle, is supernal, possibly one of the best pastas on this marathon.
At lunch, ethereal soft polenta with bits of broccoli in it is frosted with a splendid wild-hare sauce. (Oddly, the same polenta returns – fifteen minutes older, and less ethereal – as an aside with rather dry pheasant.) That rich, dark hare sauce is wonderful, too, on wide pappardelle noodles. I’ve heard raves for the special pansoti – outsize, round, and ravioli-like – but the nut-and-garlic-studded cream sauce fails to win our quartet of garlic lovers. Surely vampires are dying within a ten-mile radius. “Doesn’t this come with a sauce?” I muse, disappointed by a vapid fritto misto. Gianni is across the room in a flash: “Would you like tomato sauce or mayonnaise?” His homemade mayo is so good I’d be happy with it on bread.
There are ups (greasy rosemary-flecked fried potatoes with sausage, a moist herbed chicken, huge chunks of sweet, buttery carrots) and downs (a beautiful mammoth veal chop unseasoned, losing the battle against too many green peppers and sour-tasting artichokes, quail equally defeated by a bacon-and-porcini’d glop). But the highs do triumph. With dessert (Succès a la Côte Basque cakes, chocolate mousse, or a sticky zuppa inglese that’s better than most) and wine (if you don’t succumb to an old Brunello), no one leaves the premises for less than $75 here unless his mouth is sewn shut – and more if mesmerized by truffles.
230 East 63rd Street between Second and Third Avenues. 212 752 7272
Barbetta ** ½
Great dining is theater for me. But election-night dinner at Barbetta is a farce. The glorious old-fashioned room with its damask-swagged windows and magnificent crystal chandelier is almost deserted, very year-after the Last Year in Marienbad. “We try to please,” a rueful waiter confides to a trio of dowagers at a nearby table. “But we never do.” And he launches into a slightly bawdy joke. Our captain is a burly blond, definitely linebacker material, street-smart and casual. “Yeah,” he says. A lot. He recommends a light wine because “the color is so wonderful everyone should paint their kitchen this color pink.” Out of the ’71 Barbaresco I order, he offers a lesser year. “Not at the same price,” I protest. “Well, how about if I give it to you for $3 off?” says he.
With a sudden surge of rational paranoia, I have a fantasy that these two are second-story men. They have tied up the staff and are pretending to be waiters. No way I can imagine these loutish clowns being hired by Barbetta’s proprietor, Laura Maioglio, whose haughty elegance rivals the duchess of Windsor’s in her prime. “Don’t pour that wine so fast,” the linebacker scolds our waiter. “These people have ordered a ton of food, and we’ve got to make it last.” Crude… but sweet, I think, and not so dumb: Having brought not one but two plates of the splendid fennel-and-Parmesan salad he has persuaded us to order, he tucks one away for himself.
By daylight, Barbetta is even lovelier. The tiny pepper plants outside the windows and the wisteria vines remind me how magical the garden can be in summer with its cherubs and babbling fountain. But lunch the Friday after Thanksgiving is lonely. As on the earlier evening of desolation, the kitchen is again unprepared to deliver most of the house’s Piemontese specialties. The waiter thinks he might be able to persuade the chef to do a bagna cauda. For some reason, it takes an hour to heat the olive oil and melt the anchovies, to clean the raw vegetables and slice a cardoon – that rare, celery-like stalk of the thistle family.
Ready to write off Barbetta as doomed, I return one Saturday night in early December. Now the house is bursting at the rafters, festive parties before and after theater, brawny men in polo shirts, a baby with a pacifier – not exactly Town & Country, but alive and spending money, $50 to $80 or more per person, especially if they crave truffles or a treasure from the celebrated wine list. La Maioglio herself is in visible attendance. Waiters trip over one another in eagerness. And one busboy does nothing but drop rolls and breadsticks onto our bread-and-butter plates. He has to be almost forcibly restrained as he attempts to build a leaning tower of pane.
The shock of it all is how good the food can be. Deserted or invaded, Barbetta seems to be enjoying one of its cuisinary mood swings – a pleasant high. There are stumbles, a few of them serious: terminally overcooked salmon, brains in a rubbery egg dip, one risotto that could be soupier, another too strongly flavored to beatify white truffle, boring flan, dumb zuppa inglese. And the $1 cover charge is an outrage. But happily, the pleasures far outshine such petty notes.
A sampler of the cold table’s array has tasty surprises – excellent chicken-liver mousse, celery root and tongue in mayonnaise, and stuffed breast of veal. Olive paste makes a zesty sauce for taglierini noodles. A dish as mundane as spezzatino of chicken, morsels of dark and white meat off the bone, is commendably juicy. Strips of liver are tender, onions crisply caramelized. For purist appetites, there is veal scaloppine al prezzemolo with its sharp garden of minced parsley, the special tagliate di manzo, slices of splendid rare beef, and a sublime bollito misto, melting sirloin, calf’s head, and tongue, spicy cotechino, and a bouquet of steamed vegetables with a pureed-parsley sauce.
Desserts trundled about on a clever glass-and-metal trolley are a mix of froufrou and the homely – but pears in wine, and bashed baked yellow apples, are heavenly, the chocolate mousse is dense, dark magic, the chestnut mousse cake a carnal thrill. I don’t want to seem mean, just prudent. But Barbetta is famous for its roller-coaster ups and downs. Go forewarned.
321 West 46th Street between Eight and Ninth Avenues. 212 246 9171
Primavera ** ½
Suddenly Primavera is grander, installed a few yards uptown on First Avenue, dressed in dark wood and beveled glass, flowers more lavish than ever. Sunday is power night here. A steel wall of limos encircles Wall Street’s Sunday retreat. Not quite full tonight, but then the weekend before Christmas is “the equivalent of Yom Kippur in a Chinese restaurant,” my friend the Wall Street Voluptuary observes. Even so, onetime Stock Exchange boss Bunny Lasker is at the royal table. That’s Jerry Zipkin to the right, Peter Tufo and Francesca Stanfill trailing by.
The Wall Street Voluptuary’s career is money, but his passion is food. “There is no Italian restaurant that is best in every season,” he theorizes, savoring a platter of crisp fried zucchini and tiny, jewellike calamari – but only the tentacles. “Just the feet,” he says. “I only eat the feet.”
“Roger has a foot fetish,” his wife confides.
“In the fall, I go to Nido for truffles,” he says. “Late fall to early January, I come here for the greatest array of mushrooms. And I love the baby eels in sizzling olive oil. And the goat. In summer, I go to Barbetta for the garden, for fresh crabmeat and wild rice and pollo al babj, a flattened bird – you can’t get any closer to Italy.”
It’s the goat that brings me to Primavera, too, and padrone Nicola Civetta. He is wildly handsome and extravagantly Italian, sending over crisp fried white bait or rings of baby squid (I haven’t yet told him about my foot fetish). The menu on its own could put you to sleep, its so predictable – but such old faithfuls as veal valdostana can be richly sauced, and there are always daily specials produced with taste and care, lightly crumbed little sea trout or a melting osso buco.
The Wall Street Voluptuary has ordered goat – “only the ribs” – and as a Sunday night habitué, he is indulged. Eight or nine chops, tangily marinated, wondrously crusty, delicately rare, with homey chunks of potato aromatic from the roasting pan. Its been a night for tasting – wild mushrooms infused with garlic but too soggy for me, cold mussels in remoulade, superlative mozzarella with waterlogged peppers, perfect linguine with perfect baby clams, the house’s rather dull vegetable-studded pasta degli Innamorati, a salty, gluey risotto, and thin capellini noodles in buttery cream with velvety porcini and a hurricane of white truffle.
“More,” the Voluptuary commands. “More. More. More.” Nicola himself takes credit for a delicious apple tart with a slightly sticky glaze on apple puree. A resident Fabergé crafts the fruit platter – sculpted apples and pears like chevroned flying buttresses, circles of orange, berries, grapes, and banana – jewels on ice. Usually the fruit is as perfect as it looks. Tonight, alas, it has the blahs.
Three of us dedicated to extravagant excess manage to run up a tab of $350, tax and tip computed - $39.50 for two portions of mushrooms, $23.50 for risotto, $39.50 for the truffled cappellini – but any sane and only mildly indulgent duo should be able to feast here for $125 (four courses, shared pastas) if they don’t succumb to a ’58 Brunello di Montalcino at $2,400. For simpler thirsts, there’s a Bardolino at $14.
1578 First Avenue at 82nd Street.
La Camelia **
There is quite a fortification of limos out front. And the crowd at La Camelia can be goldiloxed and brassy. But it can also be meek and mousy, merely hungry, or savvy enough to know that Camelia’s kitchen serves later than most. Plus there is a sense of predatory mingling at the bar and around the white piano, where, at 1 am, the pasta is “free” and a white-wine spritzer might cost more than you imagine.
After ten, the musical banter echoes in the back room, a somnolence of beige (with its artful view of the kitchen) where waiters feint and leap to tame the howls of hunger, and the sommelier pours fast and furious, then refuses to believe that the four of you aren’t going to order a third bottle of wine. Frenetic after dark… that’s how calm La Camelia can be at lunch, when the kitchen is measurably more skillful and pastas and entrées are almost halved in price, $8.50 to $15 against $14 to $22.50 at dinner, when an unrepressed duo might spend $100 to $150, all included. Both times, I am recognized. During the dinner crush, an epidemic of toadyism breaks out. At lunch, glorious uncut fruit tarts appear (anonymous, I might be fed leftovers), and a trio of captains seems exceptionally saintly, pampering the three-year-old our New York mommy is forced to bring along (a play date has been cancelled).
We are free to explore the rich Continental notions La Camelia has woven into its roster of New York Italian classics – shrimp and fresh artichoke hearts in a lovely tomato-and-cognac cream, and a sadly mushy crabmeat crêpe. A scattering of nuova cucina eccentricities – prosciutto with kiwi, orange-accented-shrimp, strawberries sprinkled with balsamic vinegar – are too few to indict. And anyway, we are charmed by the house’s shellfish cocktail – a lively toss of squid, shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat scented with lemon and the tang of a good fruity olive oil. Thin angel’s hair pasta is peppered with a pungent pesto, plump tortelloni are napped with cream-mellowed tomato sauce. Splendid calf’s liver, cooked precisely as requested, rides on rectangles of sautéed polenta with sausage. The split-and-grilled Cornish hen touched with vinegar is the best rendition of this bird encountered in more than 100 Italian meals over the past four months. Too bad the sole is soft and butter-vanquished, and the crumbling on the scallop special slides off, a culinary embarrassment.
At dinner, our table is too small for our quartet of gourmands, and the waiter struggles. We surrender bread, butter, ashtrays, and flowers, elevating glasses to make room for a deep-fried preliminary – wonderful battered calamari and inedibly soggy zucchini with a good garlicky marinara for dipping. Were one to polish off half a dozen disks of heavenly cotechino sausage with lentils, there’d be no room for much more. La capriata, listed under “Zuppe,” is pureed fava beans and chicory, hearty as oatmeal. “It has an innuendo of flavor,” one taster observes. He means it needs seasoning. The beef carpaccio is thicker than most and already discolored by its green sauce, but it tastes good. Considering that any taste at all in carpaccio is rare, I’m impressed. Half-orders of most pastas are possible ($8). But the ambitious pasticcio di tortellini – sauced dumplings baked in a pastry shell – can be ordered only for two.
Fork-tender chicken breast on polenta sparked with porcini and sausage is a rather tasty hodgepodge, and lamb chops are buttery-tender. Three halves of South American cherries are the only grace note in venison brutalized by maceration. And it’s too bad the hand that produced a sublime half-lobster couldn’t manage to save every other critter in the cacciucco alla livornese – olive-studded seafood stew – from rigor mortis.
The vanilla semifreddo, a creamy frozen soufflé studded with nuts and chocolate bits, should not be missed.
225 East 58th Street.
Il Nido **
When padrone Adi Giovannetti is choreographing the action, as he is most every noon hour, Il Nido’s pleasure quotient soars, certainly for the sleek businessmen, the pampered loyalists. I’ll never forget one moment of transcendent sensuality…a voluptuousness of wild mushroom, heady with garlic, fast-sautéed tableside by Adi, then immersed in a snowfall of white truffle. The fierce musk is dizzying. “My god, this is better than sex,” the man on my left whispers to the man on my right. Incurable sybarites both, they agree. Provocative notion. I’m too ecstatic to argue.
It’s hard to miss with wild mushrooms and truffles, even with each on its own. But Adi wins his faithful claque with molten soft polenta, delicate angel’s hair, and dignified deference. After Le Cirque (and incurable weakness), Il Nido has long been my favorite nest for serious Italian cooking. Yes, it can be crowded, noisy, bustling, as waiters dash, dodging the nomadic pyrotechnic sideshow. And it can be costly, easily $140 for two (even $180 or more with a good aged Barolo and truffles), since pastas range from $15 to $28, entrées from $20 to $29 ($1 less at lunch). But the handsome, dark-timbered stucco setting is fresh as ever. Glorious flowers explode wantonly. And the cellar’s depth is worthy of the menu’s ambition. Lovers of innards are thrilled by the section that reads like the inventory of an organ-transplant bank.
After dark, Adi is often off overseeing Il Monello, his popular uptown outpost, but that doesn’t excuse a recent desultory dinner: flavorless fried zucchini so gruesome we send it back, soggy porcini with no seasoning at all, listless polenta triangles, an overcooked risotto, wan and vapid carbonara with flecks of cooked egg, a stale taste in the fritto misto, and overcooked shrimp, scallops, and calamari in an unimpressive zuppa di pesce. The only real pleasure comes from an aristocratic grilled veal chop, and tortellini in a fierce richness of four cheeses. As my friend Leslie Newman, the screenwriter and cook, notes, “I could eat an overcoat in four cheeses.”
At a later lunch with a duo of Il Nido champions – and Adi dancing attendance – the performance is sprightlier and the fried zucchini hot on the first try, but still as listless as the baby orchids drooping on our table. For a time, bresaola, mozzarella, and roasted peppers in a perfume of fine olive oil restore my faith in the seriousness of purpose here. And the buttery angel’s hair finished tableside by Adi himself is exquisite, properly al dente, lovingly truffled. For my taste, risotto with no “bite” to the grain is overcooked. Still, the flavor is lovely, salty but good. None of the entrées is memorable. The salad gathers glorious greens and aging radicchio in a zipless vinaigrette. Now that Adi has opened his Café Il Nido on Third Avenue, the usual pastries and fresh-whisked zabaglione compete with a very lush zuppa inglese and smooth homemade gelato. I love the chocolate.
251 East 53rd Street.
When our captain upstairs at Girafe cites mozzarella with tomatoes among the daily specials, he urges us to have it with peppers instead “because the tomatoes are not so good,” I almost weep with joy. Captain Tony gets my vote for the Restaurant Hall of Fame. Of course, I suspect he knows very well that he has a restaurant critic tucked into the corner banquette of this too brown, too dark, too hokey jungle-obsessed game room. But even so, he has a seasoned and natural grace, urging everyone to try fried custard (bringing extras), not dodging the zabaglione issue (most captains make whisking egg yolks and marsala over a flame at the end of a meal seem a torture) but actually suggesting it, whipping up a molten fluff piled tremulously high, sprinkled with amaretti crumbs. Then, spying my struggle to fix a broken eyeglass frame, he insists on taking it for repair.
Yes, it’s bizarre eating lunch in a bosky dell under orange and red incandescence that warms huge photographs of jungle cats and makes it impossible to tell what color the peppers are. But the kitchen truly shines this day. A half-order of the salad primavera – cubes of green pepper and tomato, fat chickpeas, and Boston lettuce – is an inspired beginning before pasta, half-portions again, creamy white and green paglia and fieno noodles with minced prosciutto and peas under a chewy veil of cheese, smoky rich spaghetti carbonara, heavy little gnocchi in a wonderful basiled tomato sauce, a rich manicotti pillow, and too much sea-tinged clam broth on nicely al dente angel’s hair. After dozens of renditions of barely edible scaloppini-in-sawdust, Girafe’s veal Martini with Parmesaned crumbs is a knockout, perfect veal, crisp, deftly seasoned, in the scantest puddle of lemony sauce. And a chocolate-chip-and-nut-studded vanilla semifreddo wrapped in génoise is a fine finale.
We are in Captain Tony’s hands again at dinner, as he happily prepares his mother’s special porcini’d pasta tableside. It is a wonderfully nutty intensity of wild mushroom, Italian bacon, shallot, and tomato, very Italian. The pastas all please: cheesy cannelloni in béchamel, thick tasty ravioli, green fettuccine with a garlicky pesto. Girafe is crowded, and the pace seems slow. Zestless fried zucchini disappoints. But the white bean and pasta soup and the mussels mare chiare are pleasant enough. Tony’s caesar salad for two makes our six happy, but none of the entrées equals the perfection of that lunchtime scaloppini – except the very thick, nicely grilled veal chop. Tony notices at once that the shrimp, rubberized in fetid garlic, are untouched, and to make amends brings a bottle of sweet Moscato d’Asti.
A tall aluminum giraffe stands guard outside, and the house has a serious, almost monomaniacal commitment to its jungle theme. Sadly, it isn’t too dark to see a waiter with unwashed hair and dirty fingernails, especially disturbing in this arena of old-fashioned luxury, where the works for one at lunch can run $40 and up, easily $70 or $80 at dinner. Filtered daylight would bring instant cheer. And with more care, more precision at the stove – and a little more boldness – the kitchen might intensify its brilliance, too.
208 East 58th Street
Nanni Al Valletto **
Nanni Al Valletto gets its “grand” standing here more out of reflex than reason. Service is far from grand. The crowd has no charisma. Nanni himself is earthy, not elegant. And what was once a spiffy, rather upper-crust clubby décor is gone. The new, too brightly lit butterscotch banquettes and striped-fabric walls evoke a powder room. And the bare-bottomed evocation of an Oh! Calcutta! ad over the bar is an insult to the aesthetic eye, never mind women – or men who adore women.
But Nanni’s uptown enclave was one of the first ambitious and expensive celebrations of serious Italian cooking, and most everyone I polled, food professional and amateur, cited al Valletto as a favorite. Though the dining room can be vulgar and awkward, the kitchen still has its moments of dazzle. Both pasta e fagioli – white beans with a “bite,” macaroni, and bits of bacon and prosciutto in soup – and vegetable zuppa all’ortolana are lusty and delicious. Artichoke hearts are perfectly cooked in a winy broth. Baked clams are garlicky and moist. A rich, cheese-oozing roll of eggplant is even tastier. Nanni’s big, juicy spinach-and-ricotta ravioli in a delicate tomato’d cream makes most ravioli seem lumpen. And his spaghetti carbonara is one of the best in town, creamy and rich without an ounce of cream added. The savory osso buco couldn’t be better. Spinach, limp and buttery, is celestial.
Still, there are too many cuisinary slights, and service is too antic, too frantic, especially at these prices – with pastas $16 and up, entrées $20.75 to $28.50, and desserts (just out of the Les Délices Guy Pascal and Sant Ambroeus cake boxes while you watch) $6.50, two can spend $140 at dinner without really trying. And what does the waiter say when he can’t get the cap off the olive oil?
“You see? Virgin. Extra virgin.”
133 East 61st Street.
L’Hostaria Del Bongustaio * ½
At last, a ristorante with a wholesome risotto fixation, a sensible obsession with pastas and vegetable – L’Hostaria del Bongustaio, the Inn of the Gourmand. How winsome it is with its sunny painted tiles, stuccoed arches, terra-cotta urns bursting flowers, lovely herb-painted ceramic plates. The menu is a declaration of independence from torrents of tomato-sauced cliché, but kitchen fumbles dim the glow.
No meal need proceed without delight. The tomato-and-onion-glazed focaccia bread is gummy but good. Ribollita, the thick Florentine bean soup, is a wonderful spinachy swamp. And the minestrone is crisp and delicious, as are the battered vegetables of the antipasto campagnolo. Fat tubes of perciatelli wear a zippy puttanesca sauce, and the saffron-perfumed risotto with asparagus, properly soupy and al dente, too, needs only pepper and grated Parmesan. Tirami su, the mascarpone-layered ladyfinger act appearing everywhere these days, is especially lively here. “It’s the first thing tonight to hit my mouth and say hello,” a gourmand guest remarks.
Since lunch and dinner from the à la carte menu can run $60 to $70 a person for four courses, you may wish to spare your own precious mouth confrontation with insult: listless battered zucchini with no taste at all, shrimp rubbery enough to distract a teething baby, slimy beets, sour-tasting artichokes, mediocre mozzarella curiously vapid crostino al palato (bresaola and cheese on toast), fettuccine lent an old-tennis-ball mustiness by stracchino cheese, and the delicacy of a zuppa di pesce assaulted by invincible seafood. My guess is that the hands of King Kong could have fashioned the ricotta cheesecake. And I cast my vote against Tia Maria as overkill in a misguided plot to gentrify zabaglione. * ½
108 East 60th Street
Twelve years ago, Frank Giambelli announced “the greatest first truffle festival in the history of America.” In that innocent time warp. Giambelli 50th was the bastion of a sleek, upwardly mobile clientele. Its menu was a dizzying document of depth and boldness, and the pasta thrilled us. The beamed dark, narrow cave at 46 East 50th Street looks the same. There’s a cherub riding a fish over the bar. Need I go in? If anything, the menu is even longer, and – with dinner pastas $20 to $30, entrées $25 and up – money has lost all meaning. Frank Giambelli is right there, keeping track of traffic, charming as ever, thanking us for waiting. Giambelli is a serious knight of the tartufi faith: He keeps a treasury of the gnarled beige “diamonds” in a wondrous painted-wood box.
There is cream in the spaghetti carbonara – and prosciutto rather than the classic Italian bacon – but it’s good. So is the ricotta cheesecake. Everything else sampled is so lackluster, nothing could persuade me to return. Happily, there are hungry hordes of affluent New Yorkers and nomads from the provinces who aren’t at all fussy. Let them keep Giambelli 50th in the green forever.
As we leave, the captain hands me a rose. It is an aristocratic red rose, its perfume poetic. Too bad Giambelli’s isn’t a flower shop.
46 East 50th Street
Something keeps Romeo Salta alive. Sentiment, perhaps, habit, loyalty. Certainly not good taste – or good tastes. I’m not sure if the mighty have fallen or if time and travel and the glorious blossoming of our town’s serious eateries feed terminal discontent here. To think that this tacky salon at 30 West 56th Street was once a grand and celebrated house, the proudest, possibly the best Italian restaurant around, magnet for Fellini, Sophia, Sinatra, Agnellis. And now… how sad. The first blow is the illuminated claptrap someone must think is décor: supermarket paintings, one more pedestrian than the next, an atrocity of every pitiful genre, with glass and ceramic objets to match.
Any two steely enough to stomach four courses at dinner could easily leave behind $120. The fettuccine is safe enough, as is a gargantuan osso buco. But there’s always the risk of soggy, no-taste fried zucchini, and cold antipasto that is a sorry muster of jar and mediocrity. A giant potato gnocchi marbled with spinach is buried under a meaty tomato sauce, as well it should be. Pesto tastes left over from August, and decent meats are draped in floury sauces.
39 West 56th Street
Who are these people at the Italian Pavilion? Tourists with yellowing guidebooks? Middle-aged romantics who played kneesies here twenty years ago returned for auld lang syne? Illicit lovers secure in the knowledge that no one will see them? Oh, time has been cruel. Twenty-five years ago, this was the book-world roost, and the veal cutlet Milanese had its moment. Now it is fifties kitsch at eighties prices – around $60 for two at lunch, $110 at dinner. No one ventures near us. Time to watch elderly waiters scurrying about like wizened gnomes, colliding in their hunt for the sawdust… oops, formaggio. We signal the captain, taking time out against the wall. He frowns. He groans. His feet hurt. His ulcer rages. He hates his wife. The risotto will take 25 minutes. Lasagna will take even longer.
Two men at adjoining tables compare Rolex watches. A few yards down the red velvet banquette, a woman tries to give a gift from Tiffany to her companion. He doesn’t want to take it. One speculates: He is married and he cannot wear her cuff links. He is single and doesn’t want her to think that going to bed once a week means they have a relationship. If I weren’t already depressed by minestrone disguised as dishwater, acidy pâté, melted risotto, angel’s hair primavera that somehow tastes like chicken soup thrown together by an over-liberated Jewish mother, stringy osso buco, and mealy filet mignon in curdles béarnaise, I could cry over unrequited love.
24 West 55th Street
Prima Donna 1 ½ * !!!!
Intense, driven, deeply disciplined by day… that’s a certain New Yorker. And how shallow we are… frivolous, how hungry by night. With amazing energy, we race around town wielding our Midas touch, turning dreams into gold. Uptown, downtown. Now it is Prima Donna in prime midtown. Hotter than a jalapeño. Of course, Howard Stern, our host, is a sweetie. We danced him to the bank when he owned Xenon. Howard follows the action. Or do we follow him? Anyway, we agree: It’s the year of the pizzetta.
From Day One, friends have been making Prima Donna look inflammable: Bill Boggs; the SuperNewmans, screenwriters David and Leslie; Italians in enthusiastic clutches; even Howard’s ex-wife, Tawn, bare-shouldered, with a thrilled mother-of-the-bride smile and her new boyfriend. Saturday the twelfth of January is a lesson in thermodynamics. At 9:35, Prima Donna looks like a washout, a sea of white tablecloths. At 10:30, a cruise ship pulls in. Hordes descend, rivulets of .300 hitters. They linger two or three deep at the bar, getting the feel, testing their clout. Who will get the grandstand front room? Who must smile bravely on the road to Siberia? Who sits along the celadon banquette of the runway in between? Toe-scraping minks shiver. Foxtails twitch. The Marlboro man confronts the Virginia Slims woman. Isabella Rosselini’s beauty is like a whisper in the hysteria of lame, solid-gold sequins, Spandex skirts, a scuba-diving dress, veiled chapeaus, and legs – bared legs, seamed legs, legs in velvet tights, maybe even in rubber.
At midnight, they are still streaming in. In black tie. In white tie too. A stately brunette with three ropes of pearls worn like a royal order from shoulder to hip stalks the runway, five diamond brooches over her heart. “I’ve got to tell them they’re too elegant for this place,” Howard says with a grin. A lot of people would loathe this scene. But there’s a cabal of incurable adolescents who will adore it. The power-failure alarm flashes on. The lights dim. “Good thing there’s no detector for posers and fakers,” my companion muses. Frankly, its much cozier in Siberia, watching the pizza-bakers at the wood-burning terra-cotta oven with its surrounding eat-at counter, rather like a sushi bar.
Actually, Prima Donna is subtly witty, with its trompe l’oeil walls painted to look like marble ruins. The menu (don’t miss the cover photo of “Jackson Pollock’s mother”) is a roll call of everything I love to eat, even suckling pig (alas, a disaster, with minimal pig flavor and none-too-edible skin). No one is here to faint in ecstasy over the food, but they seem to love it – mini-calzone, fancy pastas ($8.50 and up), grilled birds and beastlings ($12 to $18), California salads, chic little pizzas ($7.50 to $15), anorectically thin, in fancy dress (with three caviars on crème fraîche, four kinds of mushroom, truffles, or seafood). The rolls are supernal, once eaten, never replaced. Still, the amateur staff does its best. But the food is evolving… Every day it tastes somewhat different, in some cases improved.
Early on, I fell madly in love with a trencherman’s portion of superior soft polenta with a wonderful plump sausage and sublime spinach – an antipasto dish at $5.50 that was easily a meal. Now it looks like a cost analyst has run amok. A mini-version of that dish, with a few circlets of sausage and a tight ration of spinach, costs $2 more. Big scoops of splendid gelati – try the hazelnut, chocolate, praline, and pistachio – are skimpier now, too.
Whoever’s in the kitchen is keenly kind to shrimp, a real rarity in this town. All sea creatures are coddled here, making the Mediterranean salad a winner. Shrimp, squid, mussels, and bits of lobster in a creamy vinaigrette are ringed with shredded radicchio. Shrimp and lobster tossed with cream on nicely al dente linguine are fine too. Behind me, I hear a woman say, “I can’t eat pizza; I’m getting thin.” Either could try the seafood pizza. Its cracker-thin crust can’t possibly embrace that many calories.
I developed my pizza taste at Ray’s, matured it at Spago, in California. So I feel a bit deprived, encountering these non-gloppy couturier pizzas. For me, Prima Donna’s tradizionale, with mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes, is the most satisfying, though I don’t mind toying with a truffled fontina pie. The baby calzone – with shrimp and wild mushrooms, four cheeses, and truffles (minus truffle taste), or peppery duck sausage – suffers from comparison with a real macho calzone, or even a tasty empanada. Carpaccio with that homey bread salad called panzanella is a welcome whim, but the meat needs something, perhaps a splash of vinaigrette.
The risotto could be soupier, its quail less tough, but it has a lovely flavor. Giant pasta shells with figs and red peppers is a zero on first sampling, but now it is getting spicier. An early go with the spaghetti alla Bolognese reminds me of Chef Boy-ar-dee. But the quill-shaped penne with vegetables is tasty, and you might like papardelle in an intense duck glaze that could use a few more slices of both bird and porcini. Thick swordfish steak comes off the grill delectably rare (as requested), but for me, the honey-mustard sauce is too sweet. Butterflied Cornish hen can be miraculously juicy and almost pink. A thin steak tastes gamy, almost spoiled, and resembles no bistecca alla Fiorentina I ever met. The vegetable garnish – two turned carrots, a teaspoon of bitter broccoli, two fried potatoes in a radicchio leaf – is tortured and silly, especially when the kitchen can do wonders with spinach.
50 East 58th Street.
Positano *1 ½ !!!!
There’s a new torrid zone called Positano on Park Avenue South. At nine o’clock, one-of-a-kind minks spin through the revolving door. By eleven, the bar looks like a reunion of Vietnam vets… possibly flying aces of the forties preserved young. The men wear beards, bomber jackets, Italian leather that zips and drapes mostly on the diagonal, lots of boots – an aggressively macho crew, not at all the tap dancers, the soulful new men we spy elsewhere. Must be a rock crowd, video-production brains, possibly even ad-world pals of the owners here, director Bob Giraldi and his production partner, Phil Suarez. It is Giraldi who filmed the Beat It video for Michael Jackson and Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield. He’s done the celebrated Miller Lite commercial, ads for Pepsi and Broadway shows like Evita, Dreamgirls, and A Chorus Line. Positano is not a lifelong dream: “It’s another production.” He and Suarez and their wives fell in love with the town of Positano, found a young chef there in the kitchen of the Hotel Sirenuse, and, “since it was time for me to do something different,” Giraldi now takes his meetings at his very own Positano (today it’s the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, yesterday it was Frank Yablans), hoping to win us with the food of the Amalfi coast.
No question Positano is winning. Architects of the Croxton Collaborative have transformed the soaring heights of what looks like a bank – it was a long-abandoned box factory – into cream-colored levels, mimicking the steep mountain angles of its namesake. Exposed innards – ducts and plumbing – make high-tech sculpture. There are hideaway nooks and a see-and-be-seen runway effect, and music at the obligatory Tabasco-hot level. “So people will be comfortable,” Giraldi notes. He is especially proud of the marble bar and wood-framed marble tables. He bought the marble in Italy, but his own studio’s production team did the construction. Milton Glaser did the graphics, designed the stylized mermaid logo. You see it on the staff’s overshirts, worn with fantastic, brilliant Memphis-designed ties tucked in, and on the service plates, green and pink-rimmed.
And you won’t be surprised to see that every dish is a still life, full of color, pepper reds and basil greens, as if ready to face the camera. Or that dinner or two in a project with this pedigree, from a refreshingly original menu, might cost $95 to $110. A late-night supper impresses. Sinatra (on a very serious sound system) sings as we discover good sesame country bread and crusty baguettes from Policastro Bread in Hoboken, my favorite bakery. There are stylish, almost Art Deco-looking chrome carriers for vinegar and oil to splash on crostini dei Monti Lattari – little Dagwoods of good mozzarella and amazingly tasty tomato with basil on thick slices of toast, a cocktail-onion-and-pitted-olive topknot on each. Artichoke quarters filled with mozzarella are battered and fried. Since half-portions of pasta are not offered, two of us share a sensational linguine alla giudea – deliciously salty from pancetta (Italian bacon) and black olives, tossed with wilted escarole.
“Do you really want your quail rare?” the waiter returns to ask. “The chef doesn’t believe me.” The birds he delivers may not be pink, but they are tender and delicious, fortressed behind bricks of fried polenta with lots of nutty shiitake-mushroom caps, fried potato-chips, and a slightly too salty sauce. Red snapper gets a delightful tang from vinegar (though I can’t taste the promised fresh mint).
“You can see Joan Crawford did not clean this rug,” we overhear our waiter complaining to a colleague. “Let’s inform someone.” Joan Crawford? I ask. “I love Joan Crawford,” he confesses. “And I loved that movie. They wouldn’t have laughed if they’d been raised by my mother.”
A full house some nights later has chef Luigi Celentano overwhelmed. The paces creeps turtle-slow. And the Positano salad needs a lively sauce to bring its good parts together – tuna, tomato, olives, and little balls or parsleyed potato. The special smoked trout with marinated pumpkin is a lovely idea that doesn’t work at all. Fritto misto of shrimp, calamari, and fish bland and dry as paper is a flop. Risotto, al dente but not properly soupy, has almost no taste of porcini. Rabbit cooked with celery and onions in white wine is a mixed joy – partly moist, partly dry. But a special split-and-broiled chicken is delicious, confetti’d with ribbons of fiery red pepper, and the little butterflies of farfelle pasta are lovely just lightly buttered, with broccoli and sautéed zucchini.
Torta bebé is very sweet custard cake. The almond torta buries nuts in chocolate. Ice cream is sauced with a rather mild zabaglione, topped with strawberries. There is the inevitable tirami su – but I can’t bring myself to taste it for the seventy-fourth time in four months. I like the strawberry gelato. My friend says it tastes like cheap candy. I guess I have a problem. I also like cheap candy. * ½ ^^^^
250 Park Avenue South
Elaine’s 1* !!!!
If you just flew in from Mars, you nay not have heard about Elaine’s. Hot? The joint is equatorial. One night late, almost no one is here, but the no one just happens to be Michael Caine. The disenchanted mew how the crowd’s grown shabbily bi-coastal – too many 30-minute Wunderkinder and movie stars infiltrating the glit-lit set. Idle chat. Elaine’s brood may wander down to Elio’s or after the fickletti to explore what’s new and hot. But they always come home to Mama, grousing a lot as lovers do. Elaine’s is the prototype Italian saloon: dim so you can feel you’re slumming even though surrounded by your superiors, cozy with the quintessential Italian waiter – playful, mildly pushy, selectively forgetful, flirtatious.
No epithet has been spared to pan the food. Even outright sycophants wax indignant over the lowest gastrointestinal blows. I go to Elaine’s hungry for gossip, to feed the ego, not to dazzle the senses, yet I am rarely betrayed by the crisp fried zucchini, the crunchy calamari with its spicy marinara sauce, or the house’s gargantuan broiled veal chop, wondrously charred and pink at the heart. (At $15.75, it seems a steal next to the juiceless flyweights elsewhere for the same price.) The bill is often a shock at Elaine’s. That’s because anyone tacky enough to ask the price of wine or of the endless roster of “specials” would instantly lose caste. Those innocent little arugula salads mount up. And our thirsty octet manages to gulp $21 worth of fizzy Pellegrino water.
This night, the kitchen is shockingly adept. “What’s going on here?” my pals cry (crediting me, of course), marveling at the delicious eggplant, lovely spaghetti squash, delicate tortellini swimming in an amazingly mellow cream, chicken moist beyond memory. They seem to find mozzarella tasting like an angora sweater and sole of a certain age somehow reassuring.
I’ve always believed Elaine wants the food to be good. It’s not easy to recruit skilled cooks or keep a busy kitchen clicking. But it’s a cinch to buy decent bread. * ^^^6
1703 Second Avenue near 88th Street. 212 534 8103
Mezzaluna *1 ½ !!!!
What cranky misanthrope said eating at Mezzaluna is like picnicking in the subway? Sure, it’s crowded and quirky and noisy and the sound system blares loud as a ghetto-blaster, assaulting our numbed sensibilities with disco and Italian pop. But at least you don’t have to sit there in your sable, terrified someone will snatch your gold chains. Everyone here has his own gold chains. Even though nasty winds have forced the house to button up the blow of tables to the street, capacity has been stretched somehow from 38 to 44. In this cramped little box, everything is now infinitely cozier. And someone’s carved a hole in the wall so you can toss your fur inside to a small trained mouse, who whisks it down the stairs to don’t ask where.
On the subway, you might have to stand in a crush, closing your eyes to pretend you’re not rubbing sacred areas of anatomy with deranged louts and urbo-trash (no relation to Euro-trash). Mezzaluna’s so hot you might stand 40 minutes waiting for some divinely amoral bambino to get up and offer you his seat. But you get to sip Botticellis, crushed strawberries in your champagne. And the building won’t lurch, throwing you into some stranger’s lap – which is too bad, since the strangers here are people you know or would like to know or at least recognize or think you do: modish young girls, pouty and anorectic, men who look too elegant to work and probably don’t, neighbors and nomadic voyeurs, thrilled to have a junk-food passion for pizza elevated to… this.
Mezzaluna’s new menu (adding smoked salmon on blinis and caviar-stuffed baked potato) cleverly focuses on pasta ($10 to $11), antipasto ($6.50 and up), carpaccio ($9 and $9.50), paper-thin raw beef eight ways; and boutique pizza ($8 to $9.50, but only at lunch and from 10:30 PM to 1 AM). It’s all fast, fresh, fun, not so sense-shattering it will distract from the action. There may be better pastas in bigger portions elsewhere, but nothing to match this divine comedy – and the pizzas come out of the oven crisp, sometimes a bit charred, with mostly wholesome adornments, so we can nibble and still stay as thin as the playful young waiters. Mezzaluna is a fast jaunt to Italy. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
1295 Third Avenue between 74th and 75th Streest 212 935 9600.
Ecco 2** ½!!!
Thank God Friday comes only once a week. Ecco is bursting at the seams. Limos jockey for position outside on deserted Chambers Street. Waiters struggle through the grumbling standees to reach gridlocked tables opposite the bar. A tank would help. Am I seeing straight? Did the cloakroom attendant actually throw that overcoat? Suddenly there’s a crash. The appetizer display has hit the floor. Everyone applauds. The maître d’ speaks through clenched teeth: “If you’re willing to wait an hour….”
Friday night in TriBeCa at Ecco, once an old German saloon, dark, time-worn mahogany cupboards intact, great black-and-white-tile floor, spectacular bar with moldings and pediments like an 1800s city skyline. Happily, we’re with one of those rich businessmen who move in a coven of exotic night birds, minor aristocrats, spoiled young beauties. Somehow, attention is paid. So we’re seated quickly now, diving into $35 worth of antipasti to feed our ravenous after-theater five – fine homemade mozzarella with oil-slicked prosciutto, mushy tomatoes, slightly strong-tasting crumbed clams, and good roasted peppers, plus a platter of fleshy wild mushrooms in pungent green olive oil ($28 the double ration).
“The crowd is young tonight,” our host observes. “Just old enough to stay out late. Young enough to eat this late.” (Judging by the choruses of “Happy Birthday” – I count three – they are aging rapidly.) and they’re dressed for the prom, for a hayride, for Carnevale, for kindergarten – for the kill.
Friends rave to me about Ecco, and it can be splendid. But I find the food uneven (a dinner for two can run $105 to $115). Only the wonderful bread, dry from being sliced too far in advance, is consistent. And the string beans. They are invariably soggy and blah. “I’m sad,” the waiter mourns. “I asked the chef to do these special for you.”
Tonight, pastas are first-rate, though I don’t detect much anchovy in the spaghettini with garlic and oil. There is lots of smoky salmon in the green fettuccine, and plenty of earthy truffle on a second batch of those green noodles. Veal scallops saltimbocca are tender and tasty in a lemony glaze of sauce. Liver is thick and rare, and the barely cooked onions would be better caramelized. Dried-out chunks of chicken campagnolo-style are served with tough cuts of sausage, tangily sauced. A mammoth veal chop valdostana – stuffed with prosciutto, Fontina, and mushrooms – is not quite cooked, but a similar double-cut beauty, just grilled, is perfect.
At an earlier outing, crisp fried zucchini easily pass muster. A spicy posillipo sauce has an odd, acrid taste, as if burned, or from abused or old garlic – just enough to notice, not enough to make baby clams inedible, as are sea scallops baked with a whole jar of capers on top. Green and white triangles of pappardelle casalinga wear a fine tomato-ricotta-and-cream sauce, plus a grating of Parmesan and pepper at our command. The night’s special cannelloni-and-lasagna combo is rich and gooey and good. Fresh tomatoes on a veal chop, pounded, flattened, breaded, and fried, make the crisp coat soggy. And why does Ecco call it veal primavera? There are no good tomatoes in spring.
A flaky napoleon might be served just out of the oven, with lots of whipped cream, and the opulent zuppa seems homemade, too. Zabaglione is made ahead. Captains would go berserk whisking it in this crush. ** ½ ***
Between Church and West Broadway. 212 227 7074
Elio’s 1* ½!!!
Any gossip addict knows all about Elio’s, a lively saloon out of the Elaine’s school by way of Parma. Hot as a chili pepper, Elio’s can be a giant cocktail party, with a power pack from real estate and money, media stars, and just down-home celebrisociety taking a night off from Mama’s. Milling at the bar, where you might see Cathy Lee Crosby drinking milk, is a standard gambit. Reservations don’t mean anything. Gives you time to register Felix Rohatyn at the front-window post, Robert Benton at a catbird table, Kasper the designer and Carl Bernstein with other designs in the thick of things.
When friends drag me to Elio’s, I don’t kick or scream. I have my moments of relaxed indifference. And over the years, the food has struck me as reasonably pleasing. I recall decent fried zucchini and wonderful crisped calamari, calf’s liver of note and a tasty split-and-broiled Cornish hen. A real thrill is when the waiter deals you a good measure of truffle, then leaves the truffle itself on your table. This Sunday night, Bob Hope and the Countess de Romanones are holding down a big round table in the rear. I could touch Richard Gere with a breadstick. Town & Country editor Kathryn Livingston spies a glitter of socialites. Professional foodies are aboard, an a couple in classic riding clothes. “They’re entitled,” my friend observes. “He’s the head of the city’s mounted police.”
Elio’s is hot, but the kitchen is lukewarm. Out of mozzarella, the waiter offers to send for some. “I’ve got a mozzarella connection,” he boasts. That borrowed mozzarella, moist and peppered, is the only good appetizer of the night. Fettuccine tastes like Goodman’s packaged noodles, and pesto sauce has an odd cast, as if badly preserved. Floury sauces, overcooked fish, tough spinach, uninspired veal and chicken, grainy zabaglione – that’s how it goes. Someone should rush at once to Le Cirque and learn how to make crème brûlée. Elio’s is runny under a clumsily sugared crust.
Being here is not about fine dining, for sure. It’s about dealing, climbing, schmoozing, making points, and, incidentally…fueling, at $95 or more for two.
1621 Second Avenue, near 84th Street 212 772 2242
Il Cantinori 2** ½ !! ½
Word gets around fast among dedicated foodies. Il Cantinori is the Tuscan ristorante of your dreams, comes the news from informed reconnaissance. Into my brain pop visions of beans and rugged bread soups and great slabs of barely cooked beef drizzled with heavily perfumed olive oil. Well, with its rough-hewn dark beams against white stucco, its terra-cotta-tile floors, the farm tools and tall wood bird perches hanging in the lofty back room, Il Cantinori does look like a Tuscan farmhouse. And it must be even more winsome when the wood-framed glass façade folds open and tables spill out onto 10th Street. Uptown cognoscenti vie with the neighborhood for bookings here, and they all have to compete with the art world.
One recent evening, the back room is almost taken over by a group paying homage to Leo Castelli, who is set off like an emperor at his own round table, ringed by Mary Boone and Henry Geldzahler, among others. Even so, the noise is muted back here. It’s the jam-packed front room where you must shout to be heard. And who needs music with such a din?
It’s wise to study the food on display as you surrender your coat. Otherwise, you might miss the beans. They’re not advertised on the menu, though one night when the kitchen is peskily poky, a diversionary platter arrives – big white beans, chickpeas, and lentils, flecked with parsley, superbly tangy in vinaigrette. Bread is seriously good here, and when a guest asks for garlic toast, too, the kitchen acquiesces, sending porcini crostini as well. That’s how I know I’ve been recognized. That fact might elevate the quality of service. But it doesn’t smooth out the unevenness of the food.
The ambition is grand. Pino Luongo, chef, co-owner, and man-in-charge here, is proud of his fish flown in from Italy, his wild mushrooms and game. The long list of specials makes you dizzy trying to remember (prices, often higher than for menu-listed fare, are mentioned only for truffles). Still, the disappointment level is too high – especially when you realize that dinner for two can cost $100 to $150.
But what’s good is so good, I don’t see why the kitchen can’t mend certain bad ways. So go to Il Cantinori. Try the beans and great bagna cauda with sliced raw vegetables for dipping, or shrimp of good flavor and careful grilling. I can’t remember ever tasting buffalo mozzarella quite as sensuous as this silken round, as soft at the core as the white of a perfect poached egg. Fagioli al salto is a sturdy potage of white beans, shallot, croutons, and parsley, and the special black risotto can be soupy and delicious. Pasta bow ties are heavenly, dotted with mozzarella, chopped tomato, and two caviars – red and black – then sprinkled with olive oil. One evening, I remark that the lovely ricotta-and-spinach dumplings seem rather huge in their haunting nuttiness of browned butter. Next visit, the ovals have shrunk markedly. A whole branzino, the Mediterranean rockfish, is rubbed all over with olive oil and grilled till the skin crackles and the flesh inside is “just cooked.”
But an oyster stew is not especially stirring. Baccalà in anchovy-scented cream has such an ugly taste, not one of us can stand it. Overdone white beans with sausage in a listless tomato broth really disappoints. A huge cut of beef – the Arnold Schwarzenegger of chops – is mealy and without flavor, but a splash of olive oil helps. And venison is macerated beyond hope. Both string beans and snow peas are much too cooked.
Tirami su, served warm and rum-soaked, takes eight minutes, but it’s worth the wait. Grapes in almost-raw pastry are a celebrated house special, but nothing beats the deep coffee essence of extraordinary espresso gelato.
32 East 10th Street between Broadway and Universiy Place. 212 673 6044
Gino ½* !!½
Gino is another shade of hot. Forever hot. So hot, the house doesn’t need to honor plastic. This is where our town’s toniest decorators take their toniest (or aspiringest) clients to graze between the chintzes. And it’s not because the ambiente is simpatico. Long ago, when Gino decided to spruce up, the fifties-ish zebras-on-cherry wallpaper was no longer in stock. Loath to risk change, the powers that be ordered it custom-made.
Saturday is especially feverish, and service never stops. It just limps and loafs a little around 4 pm, when the waiters decide it’s time for them to eat. By that hour, they’ve likely already fed Yoko Ono, Mario Buatta, some minor English royals and aristocratic Italians, and foreign correspondents from Rome – wisely lunching on mozzarella and grappa as little Ewok creatures with beehive hairdos wait in line. It can’t be the brilliance of the kitchen that draws them, though Gino addicts wax lyrical about the pasta al segreto – the secret sauce our chummy waiter confides is just a little cooked down tomatoes, “a little garlic, a little butter, a little cream.”
Order half-portions of pasta. They are huge – surprisingly pleasing gnocchi in a decent marinara, ziti or paglia e fieno in that pleasant segreto sauce. The stuffed pepper has a homely appeal, and the lentil soup is seriously good. Otherwise, memory is pocked with sadness: “special” antipasto a gathering of the unripe and the canned, minestrone so pale and soggy not even a tornado of grated Parmesan can save it, less-than-fresh-tasting seafood linguine, clipped rubber bands of dried porcini in the fettuccine, tasteless veal in tasteless breading, petrified pork chops, boring lukewarm tripe, string beans both bright green and limp, and zabaglione Vesuvius-style, two thirds in a parfait glass, one third overflowing into the saucer.
Perhaps this is home cooking. Why else would Gino’s Saturday Italians seem so happy as they dip into their rigatoni? Love is sometimes about nostalgia – and with entrées $8.50 to $15.50, nostalgia here comes cheap.
780 Lexington Avenue near 60th Stree
Orso 3*** !! ½
Orso doesn’t draw the wandering tribes of the fickle chic. Its gentle heat is fueled by show-biz folk who would never dream of going anywhere else in the neighborhood before or after theater. Joe Allen’s gift to his Culinary Institute of America-tutored daughter, Julie Lumia (who prepped at Harry’s bar in Venice, on Torcello, in Rome, and at a beachside trattoria in Positano before settling here), Orso is a puzzlement. I can’t believe a recent forlorn dinner was put together by the same hand that waved the magic wand over a later miracle at lunch.
We are tasting everything in sight, and almost any dish would make a glorious lunch for me. A giant soup bowl – everything here is served in whimsical pottery – holds an earthy stew of vegetables, starring potato and arugula. With slightly singed crisps of Orso’s garlicky pizza bread, I’d want nothing more. Satiny slivers of porcini mix with duck and chicken on watercress. Bruschetta, thick garlic-infused toast, is piled high with tomatoes and olives in rich olive oil. The same baggage plus mushrooms, onions, and roasted peppers is more manageable – and delicious – on that crackling pizza bread. The house is out of shell pasta, so we get rigatoni with chickpeas, red and yellow peppers, and snips of parsley in fresh tomato sauce – another grand meal in a bowl. Who cares whether it’s authentic. Fettuccine is wonderful, too, soupy with pancetta and a crunch of celery in Gorgonzola cream. A crisp-edged pizza with tomatoes, prosciutto, mozzarella, and Parmesan, though slightly raw in the middle, is better than most overprecious pizzas about town.
At dinner, a baby chicken gets most of its pizzazz from a tomato-caper-eggplant sauce. The mammoth veal chop is stuffed with somewhat fatigued spinach. Swordfish is too thin and mealy. Unhappily, desserts need a lot of work. Sorbets are dry, gelati a joke- the chocolate tastes like crushed Fudgsicle.
The design of Orso is deceptively simple – faded-pastel country chairs, a trompe l’oeil window, an almost-open kitchen. Pizzas are $7, pastas $12, entrées mostly $15 or under, and the house red in a roly-poly pitcher is pleasant. The arrogant waiter (or chef) who refused to serve unsauced pasta or striped bass without butter for my friend should realize that no one would eat that way unless it were a life-and-death choice. A little sympathy and grace seems in order.
322 West 46th Stree between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.t 212 489 7212
La Colonna 2** !!
La Colonna has simmered down. That special rarified frenzy has calmed as the schools of piranha swim off to hotter seas. Yet all is not lost in this vast clever intimation of Pompeii. Marisa Berenson is spied on a recent crowded Saturday, and actor David Keith can’t be missed dashing between claques of stylishly garbed chums. Even better, the food seems more pleasing than when last rated. And the new maître d’ sports a rhinestone brooch on his tuxedo jacket over pegged pants. Very cute.
Once unsuccessful, shrimp in caviar-confetti’d cream have, miraculously, been rendered edible. Carpaccio dressed with a Jackson Pollock dribble of mustard mayo has some character. The huge offering of fine seafood salad needs only a drizzle of good olive oil. Ribbons of celery and radicchio make a lovely salad with shingles of Parmesan. And even a mushy minestrone has good flavor. Sticky spinach-and-ricotta gnocchi please as much as ever in a subtle Gorgonzola sauce. Green ravioli couldn’t be more tender, their bits of tomato and crisp-fried sage a snappy touch.
The chef refuses to do a seafood risotto for one – the double order costs an outrageous $30. Predictable entrées are fairly well made, especially the gently cooked red snapper with mushrooms, but a special rolled leg of veal needs fresher-tasting spinach. Zabaglione with shaved chocolate and cookies for scooping is surprisingly good, though pastries are still fiercely mediocre. Shelling out $110 to $130 to feed two, surely we deserve better.
Variations on carpaccio, pasta, and couturier pizzas, mostly $10 – on a new menu designed for supper, since canceled – work wonderfully at Sunday brunch, but someone should show the chef how to make risotto pancake. It’s a special passion of mine. And it’s no fun brunching in the dark – turn up the lights.
17 West 19th Street
Uzies seems to have lost its feverish imperative without losing the grace of its kitchen or the chorus of the cash register. If fashion’s brats are gone, a solid and loyal pride of aging yuppies seem content to claim this turf, spending $40 to $50 each for dinner. The bar still gets a riff of late action, and a duo of good-looking women may arrive from the gym very late for dinner, eyeing the crowd, full of longing and hope.
Perhaps the Gorgonzola bread could be more powerful. And some of the pastas have lost the edge of perfection I remember. But this is the best salmon I’ve tasted anywhere since France: exquisitely delicate, pink inside as requested, in a shimmering lemony beurre blanc. Breast of chicken moist as can be, in a nuttiness of brown butter, is plumped with prosciutto-and-basil-flecked ricotta. The chef has mastered fried zucchini – it’s crisp and retains real zucchini taste, something of a miracle. Calamari is well fried, too, served with pesto to dip it in. Roasted peppers with anchovies are delicious in a fruity olive oil.
Asking for tuna “rare” risks getting it almost raw, but our quartet of sushi lovers don’t complain – it is fresh, full of tuna and grill flavor. The ribbons of red and yellow peppers, red onion, fennel, and arugula served with it should be promoted to a house salad. Veal with prosciutto on a bed of intense green spinach has flavor, too, though I’d wish a less sweet sauce. Clams with a peppery after-heat might be better with thinner linguine, and the spaghetti puttanesca lacks zip, but the tortellini bathed in ham-and-spinach-dotted cream is haunting. Beware of no-taste minestrone, bland carpaccio, and four little stuffed mushrooms, nice but a ripoff at $5.
Uzies’ dark chocolate-frosted white chocolate mousse may have been served to Queen Elizabeth on her last visit to Kentucky, but it’s like eating sweet soap to me. A better bet is the cappuccino-mousse pie or Hoexter’s rich and famous bittersweet-chocolate cake.
1444 Third Avenue, at 82nd Street
Castellano is the not-so-innocent victim of chic’s cruel flightiness. Just a year and a half ago, it was in the heady throes of its fifteen minutes of fame, full of familiar face in night-white pallor, mini-movie moguls and aging lotharios wrapped in that amorphous drift of nubile beauties that regenerates with every season – shoulders, teeth, manes always magnificent.
The handsome, hard-edged mock-terra-cotta walls no longer echo like an anteroom to Caligula’s bath, but neighborhood businessmen keep the gears meshing at lunch. And if the heat has cooled – the house can be half-deserted – Richard Gere popped by recently. That’s a point.
When the fever was highest, the chef decamped to Venice. That didn’t help. And high prices inched a little bit higher. Antipasti start at $9, pastas are $12, entrées $16 to $21. And in a spot that prides itself on risotto, it’s annoying that the chef will only do an order for two ($28). Perfection, alas, is not near. Risottos are soupy and full of lusty flavor – I taste vegetable and seafood renditions – but the rice lacks that elusive “bite.” Swordfish tastes less than fresh, and the ravioli is tough. Remarkably tender veal gets its only flavor from slivered leaves of lemony artichoke, but red snapper can be impeccably cooked, accented with fresh tomato, capers, and pickle. And I’m perfectly happy with my osso buco. As my companion at lunch, a professional hotelier, observes compassionately, “It’s not so bad.” He’s right. It’s not bad at al, just a bit pricey and haunted with memories.
136 West 55th Street
Savvy Achievers and Underachievers
One glorious day not long ago, the tomato-red seas of Little Italy parted and there was Georgine Carmella – a brave little outpost of sophistication in a neighborhood most uptown gourmands dismiss except in times of atavistic seizure, when they can’t miss the Feast of San Gennaro.
Not to say that the crossroads of Mulberry and Grand hasn’t been invaded by highly stylish design in recent years. No, I doubt you’d even notice this dowdy little storefront if you passed by, so little has been done to disguise old tin ceilings and turn-of-the-century white tile floors. Yes, there are paisley velvet banquettes, an expanse of tinted mirror, sprays of dried flowers, and clunky fixtures that look like a legacy from an abandoned school. The one irresistible touch stands on the stoop – a small table with a plate of cheese, figs, and stemmed strawberries and a stash of Georgine Carmella’s business cards. I first spy it in Autumn. “Does anyone ever steal a fig?” I ask. “No, only the cards” is the reply.
Twice, the house is almost deserted. Being blissfully nearsighted – sometimes it’s a blessing – I’m struck by two especially tough-looking women who arrive late for dinner. As they pass, it becomes clear that they are men, even though one obviously thinks he is the reincarnation of Maria Montez. It’s Maria’s birthday. The entire team sings “Happy Birthday” in Italian. On quiet nights like these, someone behind the scenes uses music to amuse himself: Bossa nova gives way to West Side Story and Mario Lanza.
Georgine moves between the kitchen and the dining room, a tall, slim figure dressed à la Katherine Hepburn – pleated trousers, soft flowing skirt – dark hair cropped close. In one ear hangs a strange earring sweeping from lobe to shoulder. “It’s monkey and human hair,” she says. “I love it.” Is it any wonder we’re all a wee bit wary? Then she launches into a passionate celebration of the evening’s specials. The waiter arrives dispensing bread from his basket – warmed chunks filled with a melt of garlic-perfumed mozzarella. We are goofy with joy. From that moment on, dinner is an astonishment of deliciousness.
No red peppers tasted anywhere are a match for these, sautéed with skins on, in a lush tangle of olives and anchovies. Everywhere, stubborn restaurateurs insist on serving mussels stunted, smarmy, sand-choked, but these plump beauties are the fishmonger’s pick of the day, tossed with red onion and parsley in a lemony dressing. The porcini are grilled to perfection, firm and nutty, though porcini sliced raw, I’m sad to say, do nothing at all for carpaccio. Unhappily, too, the risotto has been steamed to a gruel. (On a second try, the intense winy taste is compelling, the texture infinitely improved.)
Crisp snow peas add a crunch to the artful rendition of capellini primavera – a gathering of mushroom, tomato chunks, and carrot julienne in tomato-etched cream. What the house calls ravioli are huge pillows of pasta filed with ricotta in a butter bath, flecked with leaves of sage and planted on a nest of spinach. A brace of baby quail carry the robust flavors of bacon, celery, garlic. Strings of carrot lend texture and color. Having begged the waiter to stop serving bread, I can’t believe we are calling for more so we can dab up this rich sauce. Only the tiny nubbins of sweetbreads disappoint.
A second dinner, though mildly flawed, has its own splendors. Everything served is a colorful still life. Tonight, there are crumbed-and-fried rounds of goat cheese, luscious on a thicket of arugula with scattered nasturtium blossoms. A pair of shrimp oozing mild, sweet goat cheese are perfectly cooked. Veal-filled tortellini are bathed in cream, with snips of prosciutto, parsley, and snow pea (a nice substitute when spring peas aren’t available). Spaghettini enriched with butter and Parmesan has more class than the sadly anemic truffle sprinkled over it. The quail are even tastier than remembered, and stewed rabbit is served with wide pappardelle noodles in its own aromatic sauce. Lightly breaded veal boscaiola is garnished with an intensity of wild mushroom and prosciutto.
The wine list is small, with only seven bottles under $20, but I fall in love with a slightly dusty tasting Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($16). Being serious about dining, the house offers cheese in a big covered basket, and decaffeinated espresso, but no American coffee. Tiny cannoli, filled with airy whipped ricotta cream, wear crushed pistachios at either end. Rich hazelnut torte tastes like a nut-studded brownie.
With great regret, I must report that discerning friends dining here at my suggestion were vastly disappointed. Since it’s no strain at all to spend $150 or more for two, especially if you’re a fool for porcini, truffles, and nasturtiums, they were enraged. I hope that was a rare fall from grace. I want Georgine to win the cognoscenti so she can spruce up the place and buy another earring.
165 Mulberry Street
Sistina 2** ½
It’s one thing to dedicate a chicken to Sisto IV (whoever he was). Split and flattened, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and rosemary, it can be a gutsy little bird. But deciding to dub your trattoria Sistina – that’s a challenge. Perhaps we should be grateful that Sistina’s owners were too awed to do more than reproduce the Sistine Chapel ceiling on the ashtrays and hang a giant blowup of Michelangelo’s powerful fresco of God giving Adam the spark of life – just the arms, thank heaven, no more. This is a pasta parlor, after all. Otherwise, everything is bare wood and bare beige with white tablecloths and a few potted trees – and waiters running free-form relays, purposeful but disorganized, often asking the same questions.
Grab one and get him to guide you through the menu. It’s bad enough that he doesn’t hint at the high price of specials here, almost always a few dollars higher than the listed pastas ($11 to $17) and entrées ($10 to $18). Reading the menu is as puzzling as a first encounter with Ulysses. Molisana, meraviglia, romagnola – they are all passwords for chicken in differing guises. Sorpresa, gran successo, capocuoco are acts committed with seafood. The sorpresa is… how extraordinary the food can be when everyone is really trying.
The very good bread alerts you that details count. The zucchini alone convinces you that there’s a cook in the kitchen. A giant platter of crunchy wisps, thinner than shoestrings, arrives, needing salt perhaps. Eat them hot. An early, anonymous, slightly frenetic but excellent dinner (except for characterless and overcooked seafood that prompts me to suspect the chef hates fish) is followed by a mostly lackluster lunch. But the dazzle of a second dinner has my roller-coaster spirits soaring again.
Of course, our trio’s suspicion is that at least one of us has been recognized. The man in charge hovers near, waving jars of truffles – both black and white – under our noses, waxing lyrical over the specials of the day, decanting our young wine. (Looking around, we can see that his courtship is not exclusively ours, but definitely selective.) Who knows what incantations he has recited in the kitchen. I can only report our trio’s swoons and bravos… for that graceful gray mushroom called pleurote, garlicky with a peppery after-kick; for tender spinach-plumped ravioli in a voluptuous melt of four cheeses; for corkscrew fusilli tossed with porcini, tomato, and basil, infused with garlic, moistened with oil; and for tonnarelli, a fettuccine-like egg noodle in thickened cream, celestial landing field for an earthy onslaught of truffle.
For starters, thinnest leaves of polenta (fried to a chewiness that requires a knife) are topped with white beans and bits of porcini. Caprese, a princely $9, gathers buffalo mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated zucchini, and leaves of fresh basil. The risotto is a flop, too cooked, unseasoned, bland as if its sea tenants have been cooked elsewhere, but the day’s special quail, truffled in black, are juicy. And the paillard of veal, flattened, marinated in balsamic vinegar, and sautéed, is sheer goodness.
The house’s runny crème brûlée, with an unpleasant crust of crystallized sugar, and a sweet, soppy napoleon make the bakery-bought chocolate cake and almond délice look especially good, and the zuppa inglese with fresh pineapple is wonderful. Strawberries in more of that cleverly exploited balsamic vinegar are better than you might imagine.
Oh, yes, it’s only fair to note that one of my companions at that sense-stirring dinner returns and finds the pleasures much muted. What a pain. As long as you can do it, Sistina, why don’t you just do it?
1555 Second Avenue near 81st Street. 212 861 7660.
Gordon’s does not seem devoutly Italian to me, though the menu is close to the faith. The dark patina’d wood paneling gives Gordon’s a pubby English air. When I twirl my fork through fettuccine with shrimp in lemon cream, I think I’m in California. And desserts as homey and varied as these are definitely American. Then there is the mounted moose head wearing a necktie. No, you’re not likely to find that kind of humor in an Italian restaurant.
Of course, there is one chef from Florence, but the other is Parisian, and owner Cris Barone is a recent repatriate from California. His partner, Andrea Anson, provides the ambience of ambiguity. On his Italian mother’s side, he’s noble; on his English father’s side, he’s royal. But give me deliciousness over authenticity any day. And the prices are reasonable, too, pastas $9 to $14, all but two entrées $14 or under.
There is no cloakroom. Coat hooks are impractically placed, mostly too low. And the staff is amateur though agreeable and informed. One night, our waitperson suggests that the torta of mascarpone layered with Gorgonzola, listed under appetizers, is more ideally dessert. She’s correct. And how kind she is, warning us off the Gavi wine – “There are other wines as good for less.”
Arriving rather late one night, we find ourselves in the hands of a chummy fellow, his voice stentorian as he calls the honor roll of specials. “Shrimp arrabbiata. ‘Arrabiata’ means ‘angry,’ but these shrimp are just aggravated.” He’s so full of information and trilled r’s, someone asks, “Are you Italian?” “I spend time with my uncle in Rome. That gives me a flavor I hope you will find in the pasta,” he responds. When the waiting stretches unusually long, he explains, “I had to persuade the chefs to reopen the kitchen by telling them I’ve got this great dinner order.”
Perhaps that’s why the bread tastes so stale. It’s been cut too far ahead. But dinner makes pouts disappear. It’s amazing how much flavor the kitchen gets out of winter’s pallid tomatoes, chopped with olives and basil on wonderful olive-oil soaked toast. Grainy puree of chicken liver is spread on toast, too, with a dotting of sage, and its peppery after-kick seems to be the chef’s signature. Garlicky golden-oak mushrooms sautéed with fresh herbs have that heat, too. Spinach-and-ricotta dumplings are tender and tasty in a fine tomato sauce.
The pick of the pastas is fettuccine, with a powerhouse of sun-dried tomatoes turning the cream bright pink. Rigatoni with wild mushrooms and just a touch of spinach, a special one evening, is very good. The homemade taglierini are primitive in shape but creamy and lush. The waiter lets everyone have a sniff of the truffle before he shaves it.
The game hen is angry – arrabiata, too. One leg is tucked under the other to hold a lemon half… a little too cute, but forgiven, since the bird is wonderfully zesty and moist. A beurre blanc of Asti Spumanti (“I probably shouldn’t use that expression in an Italian restaurant,” our waiter apologizes) does nothing for an impeccably poached red snapper, served with fennel and endive. But the sea bass is cooked precisely the way we like it, too firm to fillet neatly, sweet and fresh.
This late night, the dessert table is already ravaged. “I can’t bear to tell you what you missed,” the waiter says mournfully. And he’s right. Desserts can be lovely: pears in cream with shavings of chocolate, rich, dark chocolate-almond-cake, and peach torte in a wonderful cookie crust with thick clouds of superior whipped cream. The house manages to find what our waiter calls River Arno Mudcake (a salute to the Florentine chef) – it’s a fudge number on a puddle of raspberry sauce with cream swirled in to make an elegant pattern. There is a homey apple-and-pine-nut cake, too, and a primitive Linzer torte one comes to love.
38 MacDougal Street
DeMarco strikes me as infinitely American. More American than Italian. American in its audacity and its innocence. I mean that as a compliment. DeMarco’s kitchen may take liberties with ethnic authenticity, but it is not producing tomato-flecked chop suey. What you get on your plate is mostly wonderful to eat. DeMarco is already much loved by the neighborhood and often booked ahead. Urban offspring of a summertime venture on Nantucket, it is strikingly stark, rather SoHo in feeling, with cast-iron Corinthan columns stripped down to bare metal, gray industrial carpet, and walls bare except where spots create circles of light. The serving staff look like college kids waiting table at a summer resort, men and women alike dressed in tucked-front dress shirts and cummerbunds. Ours is a poised beauty. We ask why the columns are rather oddly places, two of them eccentrically close. “It was a funeral parlor,” she confides. (The owner later says she is mistaken.) We are silent, imagining a morgue, bodies on ice, the crematorium. But we are dedicated… obsessed foodies. Nothing can spoil our appetites.
The menu is tailored, brief, everything described, prices high: antipasti $5.50 to $7.50, pastas $15 to $18, entrées $20 to $24. And our Lorelei takes our entire vast and complicated order – full of admonitions not to overcook – without a notebook, reciting prices of each special. Unfortunately, a duo of waiters never quite get all four dishes to the table at the same time, and no one seems to know who ordered what.
Amateur flightiness aside, what DeMarco is attempting is thrilling. There’s room for authenticity and a place for creative invention. Perhaps that’s what the DeMarco brothers intended. Three of the four are educators. The fourth is a psychoanalyst, executive headhunter, and Renaissance scholar. If the spaghetti alla primavera, with shrimp, scallops, and strings of julienne vegetables in an herb-touched cream, is unorthodox, it’s only to be expected.
The flaws are many, a few even serious, but the originality inspires a feeling of contentment. Beignets di pesce are not beignets at all. Perhaps the kitchen forgot to batter the cubes of swordfish. They are sautéed naked, served on disks of lemon encircling basil-flecked tomato. And the “jumping lamb” chunks, with hearts of artichoke, perfumed with fennel seed and rosemary, would be lovelier less cooked. Insalata “buon gustaia” is a colorful still life – slivered mozzarella, carrots, squash, yellow and red peppers, sopressata sausage and olives on leaves of radicchio and red oak lettuce. It could use a tastier vinaigrette.
Half a lobster goes into the creamy rose-tinged sauce of linguine con aragosta, studded with tomato bits. Odd-tasting shrimp mar the angel’s hair pasta, and fettuccine-like tagliatelle with preserved duck and porcini in red-wine sauce sounds more splendid in concept than it tastes in this soupy rendition. A thick grilled veal chop ordered “pink” is cool at the heart. Tossing tender scallops of calf’s liver with tendrils of sun-dried tomato and leek is delicious inspiration even if the liver is not rare as ordered. And I love the house’s spectacular umido di pesce, a saffroned “bouillabaisse” with lobster, shrimp, clams, and scallops, a huge crouton, and a ramekin of thick pepper-heated, garlicky rouille.
All pastas and desserts are made in the house, as is the rich, thick, salt-free Tuscan bread. (It is not very Tuscan, and its lack of salt doesn’t help.) A scant portion of cool zabaglione might be served on fresh fruit or mixed berries. The pastry cook’s Linzer torte has the taste of fresh raspberry jam in gingerbread crust, and the tirami su is a Sophia Loren of tirami sus – seriously luscious.
A string quartet plays at Sunday brunch, when someone is silly enough to light candles in daylight, but the menu is designed to please most any appetite – a hunger for breakfast, or for something more substantial. A soft and pristine omelet is topped with thinnest string beans and asparagus, diced tomato, broccoli, and a melt of goat cheese. Two giant crêpes are plump with prosciutto, salami, spicy sopressata, and three cheeses, topped with a coulis of tomato.
A refreshing orange-and-spinach salad escorts an eggplant-and-mushroom-filled zucchini soufflé that would be prettier intact than tumbled from its baking dish. Homemade sausages are served with roasted red peppers and bland polenta. Grilled swordfish lacks taste, too. Neither rosemary nor lime butter can offset the dryness. I can’t remember the last time I salted food, but this noon almost everything cries for it.
True to form, our waiter fails to note that one order has never been served. This does seem like a litany of complaint. Well, perfection is still a dream at DeMarco. But imagination in the kitchen is enough to lure me back.
1422 Third Avenue, near 81st Street.
Scarlatti * ½
When restaurant mania grows so virulent that dentists, graphic designers and video producers are falling all over one another in the race to open $2-million beaneries, how could a savvy restaurateur just sit calmly by? Lello Arpaia couldn’t. And so we have Scarlatti, vast and infinitely grander than his Lello, two blocks away.
Evidently there were hordes of pinstriped nabobs and flush dowagers huddled outside waiting for the doors of Scarlatti to open. Hysteria reigns at the one-week mark. A television team is grinding away. The staff is about as calm as a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m not sure that even the most militant professional could maintain grace under such attack, and so I will discount that day’s comedy of errors. With the house more sedate – less crowded, less pressured – at a later dinner, it is possible to appreciate the grandeur, not for chic necessarily, but for the money spent, the giant chandeliers and peach-upholstered side chairs, the reflection of candlelight in smoked mirror. The menu is equally cautious. Too bad. Naples-born Lello talked about bringing regional cucina to East 52nd Street. The menu reflects surrender of that dream – unless you count sole Siciliana, shredded cardboard smothered in a blanket of melted mozzarella. The only adventures are malfatti con carciofi – triangles of pasta tossed with artichoke, capers and olives, very salty, very good – and an antipasto of biting broccoli di rape with sausage and whole garlic cloves, unlisted on the menu. In this high-rent Zip Code, with pastas $14 to $18, entrées $18 to $28 (most $1 or $2 less at lunch), recognizable Northern Italian cliché must have seemed prudent.
Still, familiar little pallets of breaded-and-fried mozzarella, and the antipoasto misto – one split shrimp, one plump New Zealand mussel, a couple of nicely crumbed clams, and delicious stuffed zucchini – are good, and the zuppa paradiso is elegant, thin ribbons of veal, chicken, and julienned vegetables in broth that telegraphs the chef’s heavy hand with the salt. Spaghettini carbonara is a tasty swamp studded with pancetta. Tough, tight, tasteless little tortellini swim in an undistinguished Bolognese sauce. Risotto ortolana, thick with asparagus tips, zucchini, mushrooms, and carrots, could be soupier and less salty. Red snapper with clams and mussels is delicately cooked in a lightly tomato’d wine sauce, and the zuppa di pesce is a triumph of freshness and deft seasoning. Veal chop pounded, breaded, and fried in the Milanese way is minus flavor, and the pleasant chunks of chicken with sausage deserve better than artichoke hearts that taste bottled. A remarkably good steak with green and black peppercorns, served rare as commanded and cognac-inflamed, sits in a dreary sauce.
Fussy cakes, some rarely before encountered – mimosa custard cake and the green-marzipan-frosted cassata all Siciliana – may thrill your dentist. A baroque zuppa inglese thrills me. The wine list is an odd mix of moderately priced Italian generics, rare vintages from Piedmont, and California treasures priced to pay off the mortgage fast.
34 East 52nd Street
Watching Paola Marracino tending to her flock in the cramped, narrow storefront that is Paola’s makes me think this is one happy family. There are seats for only 32. Arrive before your table vacates and you will stand like a sardine in a smidgen of space between the cloakroom and the fridge, struggling to stay clear of the kitchen scrimmage.
All I can say for sure if that the pastas are so spectacular at that first dinner, I begin sending friends to Paola’s. At a second outing, perfectly dismal pastas leave me puzzled. How can the same cook who produced a sublime fettuccine with shrimp and crab in cream sauce, dazzling rich manicotti, and a blessing of fusilli with vegetables in tomato-flecked cream now permit leathery noodles to mar such savory sauces? I mean manicotti so stiff it takes a knife to cut through it. My guess is we’re in the hands of novices here. But portions are mythically huge, prices gentle – half pastas $5, entrées $10.95 to $17.50 – and the fare is hearty, often decidedly delicious. Recommended: robust bean-and-escarole soup, the riotous jumble of hot antipasto, odd breaded liver, chicken with sausage, grapes nestled in zabaglione. Try the pasta – there’s a fifty-fifty chance it will be wonderful.
347 East 85th Street.[Paola now at 1295 Madison Avenue at 92nd Street. 212 794 1890]
La Sirena with its sea obsession has moved into the spiffy burgundy-and-silver Deco digs abandoned by Altri Tempi. It avoids nautical cliché by inheriting quilted-satin banquettes and silver-threaded tufting on the walls, precious Ginori china, and heavy Art Deco flatware. But except for a few odd imported fish, there is nothing on La Sirena’s menu that can’t be found in dozens of our town’s Italian feeding stations.
Too bad padrone Nino Selimovic, brother and former sous-chef of Bruno, across the street, isn’t more inventive and daring. The sole breakout from predictability is a linguine with zucchini, tomato, and, bravo! ribbons of fresh tuna. Alas, the tuna is overcooked. The captain offers to grate cheese on it.
“Would you grate cheese on this for your sister?” I ask.
“No,” he admits. “But Americans seem to like cheese on everything.”
Perhaps it’s a bit too soon to judge La Sirena, even though it’s been open for business ten weeks. Lunch is not exactly jumping, and one Christmas-week night we two dine totally alone, on erratic fare (pastas $12 to $14, entrées $14 to $20). There are fine clams and oysters, crab that quite frankly smells. The butter tastes old, too, though the bread is superior. A frutta di mare risotto resembles rice pilaf. But fried shoestring zucchini, impressive minestrone, a very garlicky Caesar salad, and branzino in a tomato-flecked wine sauce are all fine. With no one else to talk to, the captain must be forgiven for asking “Is everything okay?” every four minutes.
237 East 58th Street
Having captured their uptown East Side neighborhood with two cloned Trastaveres and then Erminia, the Lattanzi clan has transported their formula for success to Lattanzi – hearty food in a rustic setting at moderate prices – to the theater district, where, the mouth knows, dining thrills are scarce.
But the delights of an autumn dinner – artistry in a vegetable fritto misto, impressive mozzarella, a buttery rendition of capellini primavera, impeccably crisped calamari with a peppery tomato sauce, and a wondrously stuffed veal chop – soon fade into a pattern of uncertainty: a disappointing lunch, an uneven performance from the kitchen at a later dinner. As the gustatory cheer dims, minor slights of service seem more annoying. Too bad. Unlike its ancestral turfs, Lattanzi gives you room to take a deep breath. And warm brick walls and hanging lights shaded with print napkins create an old-time coziness.
Perhaps there is a skillful chef who comes and goes. Perhaps a practiced hand was dispatched from Trastavere just to launch this offspring. Should you wish to gamble anyway, figure on spending $85 or more for two at dinner, slightly less at lunch.
361 West 46th Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue. 212 315 0980.
Dal Barone ½ *
When I read the press agent’s boast that Dal Barone serves its strawberry risotto “pink and heart-shaped,” I rush down to TriBeCa. Strawberry risotto can’t shock or depress me. I first tasted it in Venice in the tiny mom-and-pop-run Pordanone, where Signore Marchiori assured me it was not mere nuova cucina audacity but “an ancient recipe.” It’s the acid of the fruit that comes through, not the sweet, but… heart-shaped? Dal Barone’s is too well made for that, soupy and faintly al dente as a good risotto must be. Dal Barone rates a cheer for menu audacity, daring penne with orange, tomato, and cream, and red tortellini with green peppercorns. And another cheer for its clever use of light and theatrical gels to make a cityscape-like pattern over the bar, its giant murals evoking old-time New York.
If only all the food here were as good as the risotto, or even half as impressive as the crowd that boogies in after ten. I especially like the creature in the gold-tinsel Cleopatra wig. I won’t say the kitchen is unredeemable, even if my guest does thank me for “the most fun and the worst food I’ve had since I got home from Tuscany.” A skimpiness of mozzarella has the next table all atwitter, but the struzzichini assortiti could be a spectacular antipasto with more attention to quality and a bigger dose of good olive oil. Swollen cottony bread does not make a tasty pavese soup – the bread should be fried in butter till golden brown. The chemical taste of artichokes taints an angel’s hair special with garlic and olives. A quick splash of olive oil does nothing to mask the red snapper’s grim odor. With pastas $9 to $18, entrées $15 to $18, and an $18 prix fixe lunch, the pretty people my soon find other strawberry fields.
131 Duane Street