Thursday, October 14, 2010

We Met in Eataly But Ate at Otto

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.

An extremely well executed Caffè Vergnano espresso macchiato was a highlight of our Eataly walk-through; even the price (sub $2) was right. Pricing questions aside, the macelleria also looked none too shabby.

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
(212) 995-9559
Otto Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

200 Fifth Avenue (at 23rd Street)
New York, NY 10010
(646) 398-5100
Eataly on Urbanspoon


TWG said...

phew! for a bit I thought it was deja vu all over again. Luckily you mentioned Joe's post which I had forgotten about.

We take our niece there when visiting NYC. The wine list at Otto is pretty good especially for that type of restaurant.

Lisa said...

Dick and I had a wonderful meal at the Lupa bar a few years ago along with extended conversation with the bartender. Agree it is a great way to experience such a place.
We miss you in Wilmington.

Josh George said...

I always loved dining at one of the empire establishments of Batali during the afternoon. No crowds. For all the commercial success of these places you couldn't deny the quality involved. Since I moved down South we have a somewhat new eatery that is such a welcome addition...
Top notch wine list, you can get Coenobium by the glass for $9. Great grub as well. They are changing the wine list culture down here for sure by not dumbing things down and they are packed everynight.

bill l said...

i have had 3 really good meals at Lupa. i don't think it's in the batali empire anymore is it?

David McDuff said...

@TWG - Sounds like you get up the the city with decent regularity as well, Tom. Glad to hear you've enjoyed Otto, too.

@Lisa - I've yet to check out Lupa. An inevitable excursion, I'm sure. I miss you in Wilmington, too. 'Twas always a pleasure.

@Josh - I often take the same approach here in Philly with some of the more crowded places. Monk's, for instance, is almost always a zoo at night but is very mellow in the afternoon. Secco sounds like a good spot; Philly is still waiting for a truly adventurous wine bar. A big part of the problem is that the wines (Coenobium would be just one good example) aren't readily available to support such a venture.

@Bill - Lupa is still very much a part of the Batali/Bastianich empire. Here's their site:

Joe Manekin said...

Scary, indeed, that anyone out there should think even remotely like me. I'd be worried, David!

We all had a great time, despite the rain.

In other Batali related stuff, I finally got around to catching an episode of the Batali, Gwynneth, Bittman, Claudia PBS Spain series. Funny stuff if you have not already checked it out.


Alfonso Cevola said...

just ate @ Otto in Las Vegas. Nice experience too!

David McDuff said...

@Joe - Apologies for having neglected your comment for so long. It was a blast hanging out w/ you and Nattles, too. I've not seen any of the episodes of the Fab Four on PBS but have always been kind of turned off by the book. I guess I'll have to give the show a chance if I catch it in the rotation.

@Ace - Glad to hear it. Would you believe I've never been to Vegas? Not sure that Otto will be enough to entice me there but at least I know there's a spot to find some good Italian vino should life lead me there.

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