It seems less surprising that Robert De Niro’s restaurant Ago failed in New York than it ever landed here at all. It had all the elements in place for universal loathing by the New York food world: unreasonably high prices, celeb-focused culture, uncaring servers, and worst of all, bad food. That may fly in LA and Miami, but in this city of 18,696 restaurants, we have better options. And P.S., no more expense accounts.
Kudos to De Niro, though, who was not afraid to make a total 180 and take this once awkward, lame-but-trying-to-be-cool spot into a restaurant that really dazzles. The makeover, by Ken Friedman and Meyer Davis, plays up the beauty of the existing dark wood and leaded glass windows but ditches the white tablecloths in favor of a more down-to-earth approach. The lamps are now (unexpectedly flattering) industrial kitchen lights, lit low and hanging closer to the tables for a feeling of intimacy in the high-ceilinged space. The tables are plain wood, and the chairs, once oversized Italian-granny-style furniture, are now blissfully unnoticeable. But the biggest turnaround is in food and service.
De Niro, deferring to the experts for this remake, apparently asked the advice of David Chang when picking a new chef (though Friedman must have had a hand in this too). Chang recommended Andrew Carmellini as the best young Italian chef in the city. Carmellini was quickly installed, and thank God for that, because we will all reap the benefits for years to come, let’s hope.
The menu is divided into five parts: Piccolini, Antipasti, Pasta, Secondi, and Contorni. The “Piccolini” section is unusual, but it’s a reflection of the overhaul as a whole: bringing down prices, increasing options, appealing to commitment-phobes and sharers with small plates served family style (interestingly, the same sort of downsizing that happened with Bar Milano when it morphed into ‘inoteca Liquori). Do not skip the piccolini, because a couple of them are to die for. This sheep’s milk ricotta drizzled with pesto had all the creaminess and delicacy of a regular ricotta, but with the slight tang of sheep’s milk, which gave it an edge much like bufala gives mozzarella that extra push. Even the toast was excellent, with just the right amount of char.
Equally sublime were the chicken liver crostini ($6), with a chicken liver mousse spun light as air, but densely flavorful, subtly perfumed with vin santo. The sultanas on top were like a bigger, less sweet golden raisin with a lot of chewy texture to counterbalance the super smooth mousse.
Vegetables also get the star treatment, like the marinated beets with pecorino and walnuts ($6). The beets tasted as if they’d been airlifted from the earth to the plate, cooked just a hair past raw but not a second too long. Carmellini’s pairing of beets with pecorino was a wonderfully creative salty-sweet twist. Walnuts added an earthy element to the dish.
The asparagus, on the other hand, wasn’t very memorable. It was served with oranges. That’s about all I can remember about the dish.
Graduating a step up to the antipasti category, the Mediterranean sardines in saor ($13) were quite tasty. Because of their canned siblings, fresh sardines, whose flavor is clean, crisp and saline as an oyster, have gotten an unnecessarily bad rap and are underutilized in the U.S. Let’s hope that Locanda Verde’s small step for sardines will be the beginning of a bigger, city-wide one.
The potentially boring arugula insalata ($11) overdelivered, carefully balancing the peppery arugula with green apple, almonds, and pecorino. Were there slivers of incredibly fresh celery in there too? An intensely flavorful salad.
There was a tempting rabbit ragu on the menu that night, but I went with something that’s regularly on the menu, the homemade farfalle. It’s unusual to see this shape in fresh pasta since tiny fans are tricky to fold. Locanda Verde’s were artfully executed, however, and mixed with a lush sauce of fresh clams, sweet pepper and chorizo. My one complaint about this dish was that the chorizo wasn’t a bigger physical presence in the dish: You could taste it, but the slices of chorizo I’d been looking forward to were in fact tiny cubes cut mille-pois style.
The humorously-named “porchetta the way I like it” ($22) has universal appeal, even if it is Carmellini’s pet favorite. The meat is wrapped in sage and rosemary and roasted at what must be a very low temperature for a very long time, because the resulting pork is amazingly moist and redolent of sage. In another fun twist, it’s served with a scattering of fried pork rinds. They were light and crackly as a Japanese snack cracker and could change your mind about pork rinds (though I still doubt I’ll spring for them at 7-Eleven). The whole dish might have been especially good with the rustic potatotes with garlic and Parmesan ($6), but we forgot to order any contorni, a mistake in retrospect.
There’s an extensive wine list – we ordered the excellent 2007 Produttori Langhe Nebbiolo ($13 for a glass, $50 for a bottle). The service was much better than the reportedly nightmarish service at Ago, and it was surprisingly easy to get a reservation: we called, someone answered the phone after the first ring, and we were able to get a time very close to the one requested. Sounds basic, but this is the beginning of “service” at a restaurant, and an element that is treated cavalierly by other high-profile places. (Best bets for reservation times: 9 or later on a weeknight.)
There were no Sharon Stone or Steven Spielberg sightings, but Dana Cowin and Kate Krader of Food & Wine were there (particularly daring of them given Krader’s previous experience in the space). Locanda Verde has already drawn so much buzz from the food world, with various critics Twittering from there every night, that I felt a little lemming-like going there. But if jumping off a cliff were always this delicious, I would do it all the time.
379 Greenwich Street, at N. Moore Street
New York, NY