Rain dances be damned. When I'm preparing for a trip to New York, it's the sun dance you'll find me performing. My favorite mode of locomotion 'round Manhattan, after all, is my own two feet. There really is no better way to see and truly experience New York, or any similarly concentrated city for that matter. Cycling comes close — you're still very much in touch with the feel, flow and energy — but only walking exposes you to all of the elements that make up any city's true essence.
It's not as if I'll melt in the rain — I'm not quite that wicked — but even the old school guy that I am doesn't really enjoy going on open-ended strolls through the city during a downpour, heck, not even during a steady sprinkle. So, what to do when visiting NYC and the sun dance fails? It's the perfect time to find a good spot for lunch, or any other repast, and to make a long and languorous one of it. That's just what my friends and I did on a recent rainy Monday. After a late morning stroll through the commercial glitz and food hall excess that is the recently opened Eataly, we decided to keep things Batali-esque for lunch. We headed further down Fifth Avenue, to Otto. And yes, we walked. Rain be damned.
I must admit, the man, the empire that is Mario continues to mystify me. His original show, Molto Mario — you know, the one where he actually cooked — was one of my favorites of the early Food Network days. His first book, Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages, published in 1998, remains one of my go-to cookbooks for everyday use. Yet I've been consistently underwhelmed by my visits to his dining establishments, from a forced-pace march through an over-flavored meal in the early days at Pò to a largely disappointing, relatively more recent experience with a multi-course meal at Babbo. As our trip suggests, I'm still not ready to give up.
So, back to Otto.... As it turns out, a rainy Monday afternoon is a great time to go. The barroom, as the pics below attest, was all but deserted. Just a small, rotating handful of regulars and passing businessmen in to grab a quick bite at the bar itself. Not sure I'd want to be there on a busy day but, on this day, all was peaceful. Sitting at the bar was a great way to get a read on the place, or at least to get a sense of its soul, on such a quiet afternoon. There's something convivial about sharing food back and forth, interacting with the bartender and sitting within view of both the front door and the kitchen, especially when compared to the more awkward scenario of sitting at a table in a near empty dining room. Anyway, we were looking to share, linger and relax. The bar was a good call.
Hanging at the bar aside, we'd all come with one thing in mind: pizza. That said, after meat, meat and more meat (followed by deep fried pork belly) at Bar Boulud the night before, we were all kind of craving some veggies. To our relative delight, it turned out that vegetable antipasti are something of a specialty at Otto. The funghi misti, cauliflower “alla Siciliana,” and radishes with bagna cauda were all quite good, satisfying that colonic call for something fresh and crunchy.
As one of my dining companions, Joe, has already pointed out, the pizzas at Otto are made in the Roman style, with a thin, fairly stiff and relatively un-risen crust, somewhat reminiscent of a cross between matzoh and fresh-baked pita. While I tend to favor the Neopolitan style, the nice char the pies receive on the grill brings out the best possible flavor from what the Roman crust has to offer. Though I could (and will) quibble with each pie, all were in essence fairly solid and easy to like. The sauce on the margherita was too tomato-paste-y for me; we all questioned whether the egg on the pane frattau should have been cooked before being placed on the pie (at least the yolk was still runny); and there was arguably a bit too much cheese on the cacio e pepe. The latter pie was my favorite, a comforting riff on the classic Roman pasta dish, taking its flavor from the simplest of ingredients: good sheep's milk cheese and a generous application of cracked black pepper.
To wash it all down? A bottle of Giovanni Almondo's 2009 Roero Arneis "Vigna Sparse;" a ripe vintage for Giovanni and Domenico, it's pleasingly plump at the moment yet still has that classic Arneis minerality and salinity hiding under its baby fat. Look no further the next time you're wondering what to pair with roasted and/or marinated cauliflower — a simply delicious combo. And think about it — or another clean, racy white like it — the next time you're doing pizza night. I sometimes feel like vino rosso gets more than its due attention when it comes to pizza pairing. The all Italian wine list at Otto, by the way, is far deeper than one might expect of a fairly casual, pizzeria-themed spot. Even more surprisingly, the wine prices, though not always cheap, are quite fair. There's particular strength in Piemonte — especially Barolo and Barbaresco — with an equitable balance between traditionalist and modernist producers.
After three antipasti and three pizzas one might think we'd have been ready to call it quits. During the course of our meal, though, we'd spotted not one but two different gents eating some mighty fine looking pasta at the bar. Turned out they'd both ordered the spaghetti alla carbonara; we felt absolutely compelled to do the same. Again, a good call. The pasta was dialed in — rich but not overly heavy, with an excellent chew, a deft hand with the saucing and a generous though not over-the-top dose of pancetta.
Now, back to the merits of sitting at the bar.... Our bartender, Eric, had been taking great care of us all through the meal, jumping into our conversation when invited (something we all welcomed), offering up sage advice on the menu, and generally making us feel at home. When we ordered the carbonara, he went digging behind the bar and emerged with an offering — something he thought would be regionally appropriate for our dish. I think he was kind of hoping to turn us all on to something new but he seemed just as pleased to find that we all knew the wine in question: the 2008 vintage of Coenobium, produced by Sisters of the Cistercian order at a monastery in Vitorchiano (about an hour north of Rome), under the guidance of Giampiero Bea. A killer pairing with the pasta and a much appreciated gift from our fine caretaker. Again echoing "the little brother I never had" (do read Joe's post — it's scary how much we sometimes think alike), give that man a raise, Mario!
It was still raining when we left but, somehow, I think we all minded a little less.
One Fifth Avenue (at 8th Street)
New York, NY 10003
200 Fifth Avenue (at 23rd Street)
New York, NY 10010