May 21, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
I’m filling up on Primola’s freebies: addictive breadsticks, salumi, focaccia…
Sirio Maccioni said it. “Either we are a genius or we are completely crazy.” He was talking about juggling his regulars at Le Cirque on 65th Street, where a certain couple endured being whipped by passing sables with dignified entitlement inches from the entrance. I giggled, remembering, as I watched Giuliano Zulian’s dance as he directed his minions to insert a table into a nearly non-existent spot up front in his noisy, sardined Primola for customers he could not exile.
Linda Fairstein can bask at the corner table surrounded by her book covers
Thursday mayhem doesn’t go full-blast till Memorial Day, but it’s bouncing even now. My friends and I want an easy evening. For them it turns out to be Primola. We’re at the window table where an expanded sill is “perfect for your purses,” Zulian observes. Oh, my god, just like the little velvet stools at Le Bernardin.
Little neck clams are cleanly crumbed and baked, served humbly.
Are we in the primo spot with Susan Isaac’s book cover over my shoulder? Or is numero uno just inside the door, where Linda Fairstein’s crime books paper both sides of the wall. Zulian stares at me. “I know you,” he blurts out. “I remember you from when I was the maitre d’ at Elio. You came with Earl Mack.” I’m amazed. Was that 25 years ago? But then, born-to-be-maître-d’s have elephant memories.
In 1000 years you’d never catch me eating chicken paillard but this one is pretty.
A waiter bustles over with house freebies - a platter of sausage and prosciutto with chunks of parmigiana, another of focaccia to spread with tomato sauce, and salty breadsticks that could become a nasty habit. Instantly, I’m hungry.
A quick scan of the menu makes me laugh. The prices have popped, but otherwise, we could be in any Manhattan northern Italian in the ‘80s. The waiter recites the specials, but my friends don’t need the menu. “I’ll have the chicken paillard,” says the wife.
“Oh, please, no!” I cry. “That’s the most boring thing on the menu. I need something to write about.”
Quick. These zucchini strings are best eaten hot, though I’m still nibbling away.
Veal parmigiana is her fall-back, she announces. She orders for her husband who’s out parking the car - baked clams and sole. The waiter regrets there’s no sole. Well then, he’ll have the swordfish. He arrives to share the hill of fried zucchini strings – still at their best hot, but cooling quickly. Even when they’re tepid, I’m still nibbling.
Thin, shaped to fit the plate, Primola’s veal parmgiana has a certain elegance.
A third companion has calmly ordered the chicken paillard as if he’s slept through our earlier drama, provoking pouts from my friend, the Primola habitué. It’s my fault she’s stuck with the veal parmigiana. Expecting the usual tasteless slab of veal in elastic armor, I’m amazed by a certain patrician elegance – the meat, round to fit the plate, has been pounded thin without toughening it, and layered with a worldly tomato sauce and gobs of silky cheese.
Linguine with clams and mussels is neither brilliant nor flawed.
The paillard is a surprise too. Granted, it’s the usual undistinguished breast of chicken, but I’m impressed by the crumb-nuttiness under decent chopped salad. A starter of linguine with clams and mussels – in and out of the shell – is neither flawed nor virtuous. And though six littlenecks look scrawny, they’re deftly crumbed too, no sawdust, not too much oil, just enough flavor. Alas, the swordfish tastes fatigued.
Italian menu cliché is handled with care, as in this crisp, well-dressed tricolore salad.
I’ve already eaten too much bread and tomato sauce, and too many breadsticks, but I need a starter. I’m here to see what makes fussy gourmand pals so happy here. My generous toss of arugula, radicchio and endive could be a tri-colore prototype. It’s crisp and fresh, expertly dressed with not too much of a first-rate vinaigrette.
Slightly singed but even so, this pink and juicy veal chop really wowed me.
Unable to settle on a pasta from the menu lineup, which includes a pair of risottos – tagliatelle emiliana, fedelini primavera, black and white taglierini with shrimp, spinach dumplings della nonna, paglia e fieno gorgonzola e bresola - I figure I’ll challenge the kitchen by ordering the $38 grilled veal chop “between medium rare and rare.” It arrives a bit singed, but timed to my taste exactly – sweetly caramelized, pink, savory, incredibly juicy. Maybe the best veal chop in recent memory. I can’t quite believe the succulence. I slice off a taste and then another.
After prompt clearing and efficient de-crumbing of the tablecloth, our waiter comes by with a tray of desserts, studied, contemporary efforts, catalogued, but rejected.
The dessert trap – presented to tempt sated appetites – is a struggle to resist.
There’s drama here too, the theater of recognition and rejection: attendees in the bar arguing for a post in the family subdivision, Zulian hustling the unwary into Siberia. He stops by our table. “You gotta enjoy. I love these people. Some come once or twice a week. Mostly they’re Jewish from the neighborhood.”
At that moment, a decidedly Aryan duo, an aging Scott Fitzgerald and a strikingly dewrinkled Zelda, stops to say goodnight. “They don’t look exactly Jewish to me,” I point out.
He looks again. “It’s not a business for you if you don’t enjoy it,” he repeats. “I used to take Mondays off but now I’m here everyday at 11 and I’m the one that’s closing. At lunch I always find someone to sit down with and talk. Your waiter? He’s been with me 13 years. He knows everyone by name.”
Looking at the menu the next day, I realize, nothing my cozily, indulged friends had is on it.
“Lots of things are not on the menu,” the owner confesses, explaining his wiles. “I don’t want the menu to get too long. They ask. We do it.” He can’t quite pin down how he keeps the privileged happy when he has seven groups claiming the catbird tables. “Sometimes they get the front. Sometimes they sit in the back.” Some customers even prefer the back. The guys in striped suits or from Rockefeller Center. They like the privacy. It’s quieter.”
Primola regulars consider themselves one man's family. So does owner Giuliano Zulian.
Strangers invading the perimeter, by accident or design, may feel welcome –“Tony Bennett was at the next table,” one blogger marvels on Citysearch. Or they may suffer the bum’s rush if they linger longer than the staff deems convenient.
Recently, Joe Torre wanted a table for two at 7:30. To keep a spot worthy of Torre open, Zulian put a sixtop at the window so none of his maniacal foursomes would try to claim it. When Torre arrived, the six became a fourtop because you can’t expect a supernova to sit at a table for two.
Just how good is the Primola crowd? He crows, “I tell you there are no tourists in my restaurant.”
1226 Second Avenue between 64th and 65th Street. 212 758 1775. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3 pm. Dinner seven nights 5 to 11 pm.
Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene, copyright 2012. All