I get a little nervous about going to an Italian restaurant in New York after getting back from Italy. If the meal is bad, will it somehow wipe out the memory of how real Italian food should taste? And just as knockoffs look particularly awful after you’ve seen beautifully-crafted designer goods up close, the comparison to the real thing often doesn’t do a New York restaurant any favors.
So by the time the check came at the Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria on Great Jones Street, I breathed a sigh of relief. This new restaurant and Italian grocery, the younger sibling of Il Buco on Bond Street, may not be exactly like Italy, but the differences are purely New York.
Take the cured meats, which the owners make in house in an expensive basement facility. Most Italian restaurant owners would not go to the trouble, because making your own cured meats requires additional work, and because most Italian restauranteurs probably have a cousin in salami. But this industriousness, so type A-New Yorker, pays off in a plate of housemade lonza (cured pork loin, $9) sliced paper thin and salami ($9) that has all the flavor of the best Italian kinds but with a much moister, fresher texture.
Chef Justin Smillie also goes above and beyond the call of duty with the quail ($16), seared until slightly charred then set in a yogurt sauce and sprinkled with farro that has a rice-cracker crunch. It’s a little bit Middle Eastern, a little bit Asian. Did they freeze dry that farro in a special molecular gastronomy contraption? Most Italian restaurants wouldn’t bother with this either, but at Il Buco Alimentari the technique adds a whole new level of flavor and sophistication.
The texture of the thick, toothsome bucatini ($19) is also spot on – perfectly al dente, but perfectly tender. Coated in the grano padano goodness of a classic cacio e pepe sauce, this dish replicates the Roman original – and even improves on it with one secret ingredient: the slightest hint of nutmeg.
At other points the riffs are a little too creative. Theoretically, the milky sweetness of ricotta ($16) and fava beans should counterbalance the salty taste of anchovies. But in reality the anchovies, a particularly pungent type produced by Scalia, overwhelm the delicate, fresh ricotta and the tender, just-plucked fava beans that deserve their own spotlight.
Admittedly, I was going for the umami-driven dishes because most Italian places in the U.S. dial it down the way Asian places dial down the spice. You do not need to do adopt that strategy at Il Buco Alimentari. In the spaghetti with bottarga ($21), there’s so much shaved fish roe, which has that same peculiar mouth-numbing quality as Szechuan pepper, that the pasta itself recedes into the background. The bottarga taste was so good, though, that I ignored this flaw and just kept eating.
In general this restaurant necessitates an elastic waistband, not just because of the pasta but because of the bread, which is baked in house and is delicious, in fact much better than typically dry and crumbly Italian peasant bread. But better make that a cleverly concealed elastic waistband: sloppy clothes would not blend in here, where the clientele is a well-dressed mix of restaurant industry types, bankers, and an amusing number of older Italian men in expensive leather jackets with much younger dates.
Service is exactly the way it is in Italy: friendly but distracted, perhaps even more so here because the relative high-maintenance of the New York customer makes it even trickier for a nice Italian waiter to wrest himself away from the neediest tables. But the front of the house is very courteous, the pacing good and the service efficient.
It’s reminiscent of Il Buco, certainly, but D. compared Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria to Eataly on a smaller scale. The market, which takes up half the front room, sells imported Italian products and the restaurant’s bread, cured meats and gelato in flavors like salted caramel. Because of New York’s antiquated liquor laws, wine cannot be sold at the restaurant to take away, so this isn’t a real vineria. Too bad, because this is one of the best things about enotecas in Italy: you try a wine, you like it, you buy a bottle to take home. Fortunately, Il Buco Alimentari is not nearly as mobbed and stressful as Eataly, and they take reservations. Make them if you want to sit in the pretty, candlelit back dining room near the open kitchen. Otherwise the communal seating in the front room is good for spontaneous visits.
There’s just one catch: Il Buco Alimentari isn’t nearly as cheap as the Italian equivalent, where a casual meal in a nice local restaurant can cost as little as 20 euros, as at Maruzzella. But there’s hardly a better place to spend your money if you’re looking for a real slice of Italy in New York.
Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria
53 Great Jones Street, between the Bowery and Lafayette Street