Photograph by Robyn Lee
In New York there are numerous schools (or should I say spheres of influence) of Italian cooking. There's the Lidia Bastianich northern Italian school, with both Istrian and Italian-American influences. Mario Batali teamed up with Lidia's son Joe to open Babbo, and that's when Batali's bold, ballsy, resolutely-Italian-meets-contemporary-New York cooking style flowered and spawned numerous imitators and acolytes both in New York and across the country.
More recently, Michael White came from Chicago's Spiaggia and teamed up first with Steve Hansen (Fiamma and Vento), then with restaurateur Chris Cannon, to open Marea, Convivio, and rejigger Alto. White's cooking is built around his unmatched ability to make fresh pastas of every size and shape imaginable, and fill or sauce them with classic Italian ingredients and flavors with a personal touch. I can't leave out hardworking Marco Canora's tradition and technique-derived cooking at Hearth, Insieme, and Terroir. Then there's Jody Williams' ultra-traditional, super-simple Italian cooking style at Gottino and Scott Conant's rich, complex, buttery take on modern Italian cooking at Scarpetta. And even with this extensive list I'm sure I've overlooked someone important.
So, within this context, where does Locanda Verde's Andrew Carmellini fit in? Yes, he has an Italian surname, Carmellini, but he made his rep as the New York chef's chef working for French uber-chef Daniel Boulud, first at the original Daniel and then at Cafe Boulud. Then, as his first foray into Italian cooking at an Italian restaurant, he opened A Voce. Here is where he showed us he could cook hearty but heady, lusty, deep-flavored food that seemed more interpretive than traditionally Italian--but was still often quite complex, labor intensive, and dependent on French technique. But A Voce wasn't his restaurant, and when he left there it was widely reported that he was going to open his own.
Instead, he joined forces with pastry chef Karen DeMasco, Robert DeNiro, restaurateurs Josh Pickering and John McDonald (Chinatown Brasserie and Lure Fish Bar), and the Spotted Pig's Ken Friedman to open Locanda Verde in the former Ago space in the ultra-trendy Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca.
Would Carmellini succumb to trendiness, or would substance triumph over style at Locanda Verde? Well, based on numerous breakfasts, lunches, and dinners eaten by me and by Nick Solares (who will also be sharing his take on Locanda Verde), the forces of serious deliciousness won out, big time. Yes, Locanda Verde is in a trendy Tribeca hotel, but the food is resolutely down to earth, reasonably priced, primarily delicious, and best of all the service (this is the area I really wondered about) is for the most part friendly, solicitous, and attitude-free.
Photograph by Robyn Lee
Light, airy, but moist focaccia kissed by tomatoes and olive oil are the first hint of the pleasures to come here.
Cicchetti, small plates and snacks I first saw in Venice, are a fine place to begin on Locanda Verde's menu. A creamy blue crab crostino ($9) was full of sweet crab and enlivened by a bit of jalapeno, though if creamy is what you want, the slightly tangy sheep's milk ricotta with sea salt and herbs ($10) is the ciccheti for you.
Photograph by Ed Levine
Duck meatballs with mostarda were Carmellini's signature antipasto at A Voce, but they are nowhere to be found at Locanda Verde (at least not yet). The antipasto buzz here is forming around the lamb meatball sliders with caprino and cucumber ($11). I liked them fine (how bad could they be?), but there are better antipasto opportunities at the restaurant, like the perfectly fried crispy artichokes with yogurt and mint ($13) and the tender grilled octopus ingeniously paired with spicy almond romesco and served with a hillock of local fagiolini ($16).
I first had Carmellini's Grandmother's Ravioli ($17) as a special at Cafe Boulud, and believe me when I tell you that I wish I had had a grandmother that cooked ravioli like his (though I bet my grandmother's blintzes were better). The impossibly thin and delicate ravioli skins are filled with an intensely earthy combination of beef, pork, veal, and a little Parmigiano-Reggiano. You won't find a better traditionally filled ravioli in this town.
Maltagliati with pesto and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($14) is satisfying and straightforward, ground lamb supplies an interesting twist on an Amatriciana preparation made with spaghetti ($15), and green fettuccine is topped with a white Bolognese ($16), made with veal and pork.
Photograph by Nick Solares
If I could eat only one main course, I would be torn between the seriously delicious roasted diver scallops with snap peas, spring garlic, and pancetta ($24) and the fire-roasted garlic chicken for two ($19 per person). The chicken has salty, crackling, crunchy skin that sheathes extremely tender flesh. The breast was slightly dry, but only slightly.
Porchetta the way I like it ($22) is an unusual preparation that doesn't quite work for me. The thin pieces of pig meat are extremely tender, but the kitchen leaves too much soft fat on them, and even the crispy cubes of skin they toss on top of the meat can't overcome all that fat. Carmellini's version of porchetta is put to much better use at lunch in a shaved porchetta sandwich with grilled onions and provolone ($12). He also puts a little olive salad in this sandwich, making this sandwich the ultimate love-child of a traditional New Orleans muffuletta and a Tony Luke's roast pork, broccoli rabe, and provolone sandwich.
Karen DeMasco's desserts are ridiculously good in a deceptively casual sort of way. A toasted almond semifreddo with bing cherries ($8) tastes like an artisanal version of a Good Humor Toasted Almond bar. A pucker-inducing lemon tart ($8) comes with buttermilk gelato and limoncello granita. Karen's homemade biscotti misti ($8) is the cookie plate's cookies plate. It features all kinds of crazy good chocolate and espresso-flavored goodies. Gelati ($7) are creamy and intensely flavored (get the malted milk chocolate and the rice custard), as are the refreshing and light sorbetti ($7) (get all three currently offered: lemon mint, rhubarb, and plum).
Carmellini's relaxed, confident take on Italian food, DeMasco's simple, perfect desserts, extremely gentle prices, and gracious, friendly service uninformed by attitude sounds like a recipe for long-lasting success in these recessionary times.
Nick Solares' Take
Incredibly, despite the fact that both Ed and I had eaten at Locanda Verde on numerous occasions (I ate there three times in one week alone), we had to make an extra trip to try the chicken for two. There is a lot on the menu and most of it is very good indeed. Ed mentioned the cicchetti, and I fully concur that they make a fine start to any meal here.
Photograph by Nick Solares
I particularly liked the chicken liver crostino. They actually tasted like liver--earthy and rich--rather than being obfuscated by balsamic vinegar or truffles or some other extraneous ingredient. A beet salad was equally pleasing, the tangy beets complimented nicely by a decidedly non-Italian feta cheese.
Photograph by Nick Solares
Wild Mushrooms Agro Dolce with garlic. If you like wild mushrooms you will enjoy the purity of this dish, although it was perhaps a tad bit oily. But the delicate balance of sweetness and sourness was struck perfectly without missing the point of the dish--the mushrooms themselves.
I too found the Grandmother's Ravioli excellent (imagine the perfect meatball inside the perfect ravioli) and I also enjoyed a gnocchi with a simple but vibrant tomato sauce brightened with a creamy ricotta, as well as the robiolo stuffed raviolini sprinkled with baby asparagus and doused in an intoxicating amount of truffle oil.
The hanger steak was perfectly cooked to rare and displayed an impressively (especially for a non-steakhouse) seared outer crust. It was perhaps a little overseasoned with red pepper; though I could handle the heat, I felt I was missing a little of the flavor of the excellent beef itself. It came aided and abetted by the delicious potatoes Pastore (named after Pat La Frieda Meat's flamboyant Mark Pastore, who supplies the beef--and no, they are not marinated in Campari, although he certainly is)
There were some disappointments. The trout lacked the crispy skin that can provide such a nice contrast to the soft inner flesh, and I found the scallop dish, despite the scallops themselves being perfectly cooked, awash in an ocean of oil. But these are minor complaints, especially when you consider that no entree on the menu costs more than $26. If the crowds that were there on the nights that I dined at Locanda Verde are indicative of what every night is like (and I don't imagine that they are not) then I would say that Carmellini has a hit on his hands. The restaurant's budget friendly menu is perfectly in keeping with the value-minded zeitgeist of 2009. While you probably won't find the cooking transcendental, you are not supposed to. The menu is not about wowing you with big flavors and over-complicated presentation; it is about providing simple, comforting food. Mission accomplished.