A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Apr. 24.

Otto and Calamari

Penne and Pane Frattau Pizza

Taleggio Pizza and Gelato

Lunch -

Otto - 1 5th Ave., East Village
Calamari, Potatoes, Chiles; Penne con Noci e Zucca (Hazelnuts, Butternut Squash and Smoked Ricotta); Pane Frattau Pizza (Tomato, Pecorino, Egg); Funghi and Taleggio Pizza (Mushroom, Taleggio Cheese); Three Flavors of Gelato (Goat's Milk Ricotta, Rose-Rosemary, Meyer Lemon with Blackberry); Stoudt's Pilsner

A day spent watching both Godfathers (I’ve been advised to pretend there is no third) could only be celebrated with Italian food. And so the afternoon began with my third trip to Otto, to explore the crevices of the menu I hadn’t yet reached. Since my last two times out I’d stuck with their verdura, cheeses and meats, today meant the pizza and pasta. If there was going to be any weakness to the menu, it’d be in these two arenas. My friend Dario had lambasted the spaghetti carbonara while many a critic has taken Mario Batali to task for his flatbread-thin pizzas.

I’ve also heard that Otto can get quite hectic at dinnertime, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve only been there for lunch, when I find it very pleasant. Opera is playing (a curious contrast to the more formal Babbo where The Bends is playing), the servers are always relaxed and friendly if occasionally hard to track down, and the pumpkin-painted walls and wine bottles on display create an amiable atmosphere. And because we were seated by the windows twice in a row now, we were even treated to the view of the European-style architecture along Eighth Street. Add a glass of wine to the mix and you’re all set.

Vince and I started with the potato, calamari and chile antipasto, a lively and creative dish that we both heartily enjoyed. Like many of the other dishes we’d try that day and have tried in the past, it encapsulated Batali’s gift. Instead of overwhelming his cooking with too many ingredients, he keeps it relatively simple but always original, rooting his inspirations in Italian tradition but building on it as well. Here the novel component was the chiles, which elevated the clammy seafood to special.

Next, we moved onto the pasta, which we’d tacked onto our order on a whim. It too was refreshingly simple but deceptively good, the hazelnuts and chunks of butternut squash adding unexpectedly ideal flavors. But even the penne demanded attention, cooked to a firmness beyond al dente. It’s the kind of detail that could easily turn off fans of more mainstream Italian food, but I, for one, love cuisine that confidently asserts itself.

This confidence remained on display for the pizzas, now and then to the point of the overconfidence. (We selected both from the more iconoclastic Pizza Otto list rather than from the Pizzas Classica, which offered artisanal interpretation of more traditional pies.) The first, the pane frattau, was a cheeseless pie topped with a fried egg. The egg was a great addition, and once my fork prongs unleashed the yolk, the yellow liquid gave the crust an even more enhanced flavor. But the part of the crust that received sauce but no egg could’ve been better. It lacked dimension and depth, essentially just a bland tomato sauce. Without the egg as the centerpiece, this pie wouldn’t have worked.

Our second pie was a funghi and taleggio combination, a cool pairing of customary and gourmet. The focal element here was undeniably the cheese, whose stinky dirty-sock boldness dominated the other flavors. Like the very firm pasta, it was another example of a kitchen that willfully challenged even the most commonplace preparations. And while I don’t think I’ll be craving taleggio in my regular pies, here it was a unique break from the norm. I wonder though if it might have been better to mix the taleggio with another milder cheese (or have one in the inner ring of the pizza and one in an outer ring) to give the pizza more balance.

To finish up, Vince and I each had three flavors of gelato, which is perhaps the only required order on the Otto menu. I’ve done it all three times I’ve been here and all three times, it’s been superlative. Texture-wise, it’s the best in New York and can even rival many gelaterias in Italy. (I still give my nod though to Il Laboratorio del Gelato for its more distinctive flavors.) On this visit, I painfully skipped the exquisite olive oil to try the goat’s milk ricotta, rose-rosemary and Meyer lemon with blackberry. Of course, the ricotta was still amazing and the rose-rosemary was even better. It was the best possible ending to a great meal, an offer we couldn’t refuse. 8/10


- 520 Columbus Ave., Upper West Side
Nonna's Sunday Feast (Arancini; Caesar Salad; Eggplant Rollatini; Rigatoni with a Meatball, Italian Sausage and Pork Braciole; Zeppoli with Honey Dip), a bottle of Agricole Vallone, Salice Salentino 2000 - Puglia, Italy

After an interlude for limoncello and amaretto, Vince and I headed uptown for more Italian. The destination this time was Nonna, a new spot in the West 80’s that was already gaining attention. From its name (meaning “grandmother”) and the little I’d gleaned about its traditional-style food, I was picturing a homey and homely mom-and-pop outfit, complete with apron-clad relatives in a backroom slaving over the perfect meatball. Not quite.

With the cuisine, I came close, the menu so standard it could’ve been cribbed from Little Italy. But the surprising aspect was the atmosphere, which resembled a brasserie, and the crowd, which was almost entirely in their mid-twenties. It was, I thought at first glance, as if someone had combined Balthazar and Olive Garden. And while I’m still not convinced cool spaces and chic cocktail lists mesh with servings of spaghetti and meatballs, it’s certainly a new approach to extremely well-tread territory.

Another way Nonna tried to distinguish itself was with its Sunday feast, a five-course prix fixe for a very economical $19. It runs a literal A to Z, from the fried balls of arancini to the fried balls of zeppole, also offering Caesar salad, eggplant rollatini, and rigatoni with a meatball, sausage and pork braciole in between. After an innovative lunch at Otto (see Lunch today), it was a little difficult to adjust back to such familiar dishes, but luckily, Nonna’s renditions proved to be mostly solid.

Smartly, the bookends of the meal were among the best items. The cleanly fried arancini arrived warm, their melted cheese and tender rice combining for a delightful opener. The seasonings were also well-balanced, all the ingredients working well in unison. Similarly, the zeppole at the end of the meal weren’t greasy or overfried, but cooked just long enough to give their coatings a nice crispiness. Here, even more than the arancini, the warmth of the dish was crucial in highlighting the deliciously soft doughnut centers. These were a long way from the pizzeria zeppole I knew.

The courses in between were also fairly strong though with some exceptions to the rule. For one, the Caesar salad was just that – a Caesar salad. It failed to exceed beyond the very basic limits of lettuce, Parmesan cheese and croutons, and so it barely registered. The meatball and pork braciole that accompanied the pasta were both excessively salty, especially upsetting because the flavors that managed to peek through the sodium blitz seemed promising. But the rigatoni, though very basic, was tasty, the sausage was excellent and the eggplant rollatini was prepared very well, making a vegetable I usually skip by delectable.

In the end, I still preferred Batali’s nouveau interpretations, Cacio e Pepe’s authentic innovations and Al di La’s casual creativity, but I admired Nonna for trying to make the conventional cool, a granny for the twenty-first century. 7/10


Anonymous sarah said...

you're my lonesome hero!

wonderful pictures of the food at otto. IF i ever get my silly L.A. butt out there (perhaps this august after a very trying exam) i want to stop in there. and of course, now i am intrigued by the egg pizza... will be making this at home.

bon appetit!

1:26 PM  
Blogger tara said...

I have spent the last few hours reading your posts - voraciously gobbling down each one. Absolutely lovely stuff, informative and knowledgeable reviews that are still nothing short of charming.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Lonesome Hero said...

Wow. Thanks for the love. Keep reading. There's lots more good stuff to come.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Roma said...

Okay, I'm getting jealous now, all this fawning over you. Shame on those young girls!(please insert sarcasm!)
Eaten at any good Turkish places?

12:10 AM  
Anonymous The Law Office of Levinson Axelrod said...

Itzocan Diner looks great. The Butternut Squash soup seems very tasty. Glad to see you've found yourself a 10/10 restaurant.

10:18 AM  

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