The West Village excels at these small, charming restaurants that have the right combination of atmosphere and informality that make it perfect for a night out. Places like Little Owl or Pearl Oyster Bar come to mind as representative examples. Another restaurant that embodies the West Village spirit is I Sodi, an Italian place run by the duo that’s also behind Buvette and Via Carota, two other West Village spots that have the neighborhood charm down to a science. If you want perfected renditions of comforting Italian classics like cacio e pepe or lasagna in a picturesque, neighborhood setting, then this is the place for you. It’s small so reservations may be hard to come by, but if you pull up solo or with a friend or two at around 6, there should be some space at the bar.Read More
It’s hard to pay attention to your food at Casa Apicii when there are big, flashy chandeliers hanging all over the ceilings. The space is so stunning in an ornate and overt kind of way, a throwback to the flash of the 80s and the early aughts. It’s quite a change from the casual and clean lines of the minimalist eateries that have been the trend lately. Maybe it’s the type of thing you see in the Midtown power lunch dining rooms. Or maybe the economy really is improving and lavish spending is making a comeback. Read More
Italian restaurants are really having a moment in the city. A small, edited selection of small plates, pasta and pizza is now de riguer, and having a bowl of cacio e pepe almost seems obligatory. That’s the appeal of restaurants like Lilia, Perla and Pasquale Jones, and now there’s another one to add to the list, Barano in Brooklyn.
Barano, unfortunately, hasn’t perfected this rustic Italian food formula as well as its peers. It’s received so much good press that you might think it’s the one to beat, but it’s all hype. Barano is not the new Lilia as certain food critics might proclaim. It’s not even in the same league. It’s not as pretty, for one thing. Lilia is sleek and sophisticated, whereas Barano looks like an earth-toned Russian bath converted into a Cucina and Co. It doesn’t measure up in so many ways. Except for the house bread. That focaccia bread is what’s keeping this place alive.
If homestyle Italian cooking is your forte, you’ve got to kill it with the meatballs. Barano didn’t quite do that, but they made a good effort. The thing holding the meatballs back was how uncharacteristically squishy they were, having a texture similar to fish balls, which threw me off. I was looking forward to the grilled zucchini, expecting something warm and charred, but what arrived was an odd hodge podge of hot fried pieces with cold grilled ones and some random pieces of straciatella that didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves. It was like I was eating some sort of prep for a vegetable dish that didn’t quite make it to the final step.
The lowest point, and in some ways most comical part, of our dinner was when our pizza arrived, and our server said that we got to cut our own pizzas with a pair of shears, as if that were some sort of selling point. No one likes cutting their own pizza, you want someone else to cut it into symmetrical triangles for you. Plus the pizza wasn’t even worth all that effort. It was way overcooked, reducing the crust to cardboard, and something about the toppings was so salty. The server offered to bring us another pie, a gesture I appreciated, but it had already taken so long for our original order to arrive, so we declined. Too bad we couldn’t rely on the bucatini pasta as backup, which was just cold and sad…
The server was so proactive in trying to win us over after the pizza debacle, so he earns some points for that. He offered us some desserts on the house, the cannoli and the baba au rhum cake. The cannoli recipe was passed down by Chef Albert Di Meglio’s grandmother, a very sweet and loving gesture that got its point across in the flavors. While the free desserts were good, they weren’t enough to buy our love. There are so many places doing food like this, and unfortunately the way Barano stands out is by how they don’t measure up to the others.
26 Broadway (between Kent Ave and Wythe Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11249
Lilia, Missy Robbins’ new Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, is like the most popular girl in school. She has all the right friends–the New York Times gave her three stars while Eater awarded her two–and she is of course very pretty. The former auto body-shop on Union Ave was converted to a lovely, spacious loft style restaurant with great lighting and a sleek bar that is all very nice to look at. And not only is she pretty, she’s super nice! The staff receives you warmly as if you truly had a seat at the table, not as if you were lucky to get in at all, which is so not Brooklyn. She is, on paper, pretty perfect.
I knew I should like Lilia, but I couldn’t help thinking that everyone seemed to be looking at her through rose colored glasses. Oh the pasta, everyone raved, you can’t go wrong whether you order rigatoni or the papardelle. So on that recommendation, I ordered the sheeps milk cheese filled agnolotti and the malfadini, and I was ready to be blown away. The agnolotti did take my breath away, mostly by how much saffron was in there. It was like someone threw in a whole jar of saffron onto the plate. The flavor of the saffron was so pronounced and distracting that I couldn’t even really tell what else was in the pasta. I can only say it was interesting, and that’s a word you use when you have nothing nicer to say.
I was relieved to find that the malfadini was actually good, not interesting good. The al dente noodles were generously coated in what seemed like butter and cheese, and the staccato of pink peppercorns was a nice accent to this simple dish. Cacio e pepe, mac and cheese, the malfadini continued the winning tradition of combining carbs and melted cheese in a comforting, satisfying fashion. And it was so fun to eat. Squiggly like ramen noodles and crinkle cut fries. Playing with food was never so fun.
The appetizers we ordered weren’t bad, but I felt like with each one I was waiting for something more. Like a missing punchline to a joke or an invitation to a party that never came. The cacio e pepe fritelle, a fried cheese ball that resembled a popover and a gougere, wasn’t exponentially better than an hors d’oeuvres at a really nice cocktail party. Even more disappointing was the very fancy sounding bagna cuda, which turned out to be mostly uncooked vegetables served with a warm balsamic dressing-like dipping sauce. I was hoping for some grilled robust veggies, but instead I was like a rabbit gnawing through raw turnips and parsnips. To be fair, there were a few pieces like the roasted caramelized carrot that were pretty stunning, but moments like that were rare. The cured sardines, on the other hand, I couldn’t really complain about. I do like fishy fish, so be warned that these sardines are pretty strong, despite the dose of citrus.
The olive oil cake with blood orange was a pleasant enough end to the meal, but I’ve had better olive oil cakes elsewhere. I wondered if I was being a hater, one who was jealous of Lilia and was finding any reason to pick her apart. But the couple from Toronto next to me didn’t seem to be all that impressed either, and everyone knows Canadians are so nice. Maybe it’s time for Lilia to take a break from the fanboys and spend time with people who can keep it real with her with some constructive criticism.
567 Union Ave (corner of North 10th and Union Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
You can’t tell by the name, and not really by the food either, but Momofuku Nishi is an Italian restaurant. This being a David Chang restaurant, it’s intentionally not really as straightforward as that. In a Grub Street article, Chang was quoted as saying, “Trying not to use Italian ingredients to make Italian food is sort of the golden rule.” So instead of pecorino cheese to make cacio e pepe, he utilizes a fermented chickpea miso, and instead of red sauce on the menu there’s a lot of XO sauce. Asian but not Asian. Italian.
Maybe it’s what we ordered, but I felt like the food at Nishi wasn’t Italian at all. It was all very Asian, and derivatives of very familiar Asian noodle dishes. The chitarra was definitely modeled after champong, a spicy Korean seafood noodle soup, as well as nakji bokkeum, a stir-fried octopus dish also from Korea. It was absolutely delicious and my favorite thing that I tried, and frankly I’m glad that it was pretty traditional tasting and not very Italian.
The curiously named clams grand lisboa was also very similar to the pippies dish that I had at Marigold in Sydney. Chang said that it was inspired by one of his favorite hangouts in Sydney, so maybe he was referring to the same place! The Momofuku version tones down the robust sweet and savory sauce that dresses the little clams and uses an al dente chow mein instead of crunchy noodles. Unfortunately, these two elements are essential to the dish, especially when they both converge so that the noodles soften underneath the influence of the sauce, and so this reinterpretation felt a little incomplete and not quite satisfying. Even if I didn’t have the original pippies dish as a frame of reference, I don’t think my opinion would have been different. It just didn’t stand out in any way, other than being the most expensive noodle dish on the menu.
The only Italian sounding pasta dish that was consistent with Chang’s new Italian vision was the ceci e pepe. It had the look and feel of the original, but with the chickpea miso, it had a slightly sweetish tinge about it. The noodles also felt fatter, the width being akin to the lo mein noodles from a takeout box. It was a very strange and interesting experience feeling that sensation of Panda Express and traditional trattoria all at the same time. It created new associations with this type of pasta in a good way, and I thought this was another standout from the menu.
I had zero expectations for the bitter greens side dish. I thought it might be similar to a traditional stir-fried bok choy or Chinese broccoli, but it’s definitely in its own category. On the outside it looks like a normal Western garden salad, but on the inside there’s a lot of Asian breaking loose. There was more to crunch on than meets the eye, a little bit of what tasted like roasted noodles or barley and maybe some dried fishy bits, all the more made better with the incredible vegetarian XO dressing. If garden variety is a negative term, they haven’t tried this bowl of green vegetables.
Gratuity is already included in all of the prices on the menu, so don’t be too put off by the $32 pasta that you’re paying for. Although come to think of it, even from an all inclusive perspective, that price did seem pretty steep. Nishi is definitely a high end restaurant, even if the uncomfortable backless seating and communal tables suggest otherwise, although that’s pretty consistent with the David Chang experience.
232 Eighth Ave (between 21st and 22nd St)
New York, NY 10011