Recently I enjoyed a three-day stay in New York City for a conference and then a little relaxation and “playing tourist”. It was a nice getaway for the sweetie and I, and as it happened we ended up dining Italian three times, at three quite different restaurants around the city. Each meal was enjoyable with its own unique pluses – and a few minuses here and there.
On our first night, we walked from our evening event at the Union Club over to Caravaggio, an Upper East Side restaurant just off Central Park. It was the name alone that captured our interest, although inside the narrow restaurant I could find nothing related to that favorite artist of ours (the restaurant does boast millions of dollars of art on its walls but of the more modern variety). No matter, though, as the experience ended up being exceptional nevertheless.
We arrived without a reservation at about 8:30 and had just a few minutes’ wait for a table. That was no problem at all – unlike it was for another apparent regular customer of the establishment who made quite a scene for having to wait “three minutes” past her reservation time to be seated (I don’t envy anyone who has to work at a restaurant in UES.) For our quiet patience we were rewarded with free glasses of champagne upon being seated by a gentleman who appeared to be the on-duty manager of the establishment – a nice touch of class for sure. It was a little slow getting service moving after that, but once we placed our orders everything seemed to move much more smoothly and with indeed impeccable attention to detail.
The dinner menu featured a tempting variety of seasonally inspired offerings and Italian classics such as Spaghetti Alle Vongole Veraci and Tagliatelle Alla Amatriciana. I began with a special of the night – a Spring salad with radishes, asparagus, roasted beets and fava beans while David had their Duetto Di Tonno Con Cipollotti (Duo of yellow fin tuna (carpaccio and tartare) with pickled onions and micro greens salad). My salad was wonderfully light and refreshing and David later declared the tuna perhaps the best thing he ate on the entire visit to the city.
For entrees we both stuck to pasta (especially as basically all meat and seafood entrees carried with them a $40-50+ price tag!) I went for another special which transported me right back to Venice: Squid ink pasta served with langoustine and shrimp. Perfection. David had the Bucatini Con Le Sarde All Siciliana (Bucatini with fresh sardines, pine nuts, golden raisins, fresh fennel, and bread crumbs) which was a wonderfully spot-on presentation of this classic pasta dish.
Our server then returned to tempt us with an impressive cheese tray and dessert menu. I’m not normally a cheese-after-dinner person but was very glad I caved in that night and decided to try a variety of three soft cheeses – the presentation with fresh warm bread was delightful and a soothing finish to the meal. David had the Gianduia al Cioccolato (Chocolate hazelnut with layers of dark chocolate and caramel served with raspberry sorbet) which was wonderfully light in texture yet decadent and rich at the same time.
All in all it was a memorable meal, enjoyed with a bottle of crisp white wine from Le Marche. Of course, it was a memorable meal with a memorable UES price tag too – well over $200 before tip. Not the kind of splurge we have the budget for on a regular basis, but when in NYC one has to be prepared to empty the wallet a little more than usual.
Next up was our only return-visit restaurant: Bottega Del Vino, also on the Upper East Side (across the street from the Apple Store on 5th Avenue). We had stumbled upon this restaurant last year and enjoyed a wonderful meal in their very Italian atmosphere that truly feels imported direct from Northern Italy. Indeed, it is the sister restaurant to one the owners operate in Verona and their claim to fame is both an outstanding (and pricey) wine list as well as authentic specialties from the Verona region.
Again we did not have reservations but there was no wait for a table at about 8pm on a Friday night. The inside dining room is dark and rustic in appearance, with wine bottles lining the walls. The menu is fairly short and to the point, with some printed daily specials (both of the food and wine varieties). Again the price here is typically UES steep: antipasti and pastas in the $20s, meat and seafood $30-40+. We did find a truly lovely red wine for $60 (not the least expensive on the menu but close to it) – it’s well worth ordering a bottle here for the impressive show they put on of opening the bottle and preparing the stemware just so.
Here we both began with two specials of the evening: prosciutto-wrapped figs for me; sage and butter ravioli for David. My figs were ok not great – perhaps a little over-cooked and the chopped arugula salad bed it was served upon could have used more of a dressing as it was all a bit dry. David however loved his ravioli (and later declared it his second-favorite dish of the entire trip, behind Caravaggio’s duo of tuna.)
For my main dish I chose the pasta I remembered from my last trip, as it’s an unusual preparation I’ve never had elsewhere: homemade chestnut fettuccine with lamb, asparagus and cherry tomatoes. This was as tasty and delicate in flavor as I remembered, although it needed the bite of fresh grated cheese to give it a touch of saltiness. David had the pan seared veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and fontina cheese – quite good, what little I tasted, and served with an ample bed of potatoes and seasonal vegetables.
We chose to share one dessert while I savored a wonderful grappa: a delightful warm green apple crepe served with vanilla ice cream. (I didn’t get any photos of our meal here as the lighting was much too dark.) Dinner was once again over the $200 mark…somehow it didn’t feel quite as worth it as it had the night before; somehow I didn’t feel the meal was quite as memorable as our first dinner there the year before had been. The service was less attentive and a bit more brusque as compared to Caravaggio – though one could say it was authentically Italian, too, in that regard.
Last but far from least, our final day in the city found us seeking an early dinner in Hell’s Kitchen before catching the train back to New Jersey. We checked a few menus (and yelp reviews) on the fly before David spotted the black rooster sign for Gallo Nero. A scan of the menu looked promising as did the busy interior. Though it was just 5pm, there were only two spots left at the bar for walk-in seating, but that was fine with us – and truthfully seating at the bar looked more comfortable than in the extremely cramped dining room area.
Gallo Nero offers an impressive selection of wines by the glass as well as by the bottle. We decided to stick with a bottle of light Verdicchio, even though we ended up ordering choices that might have gone better with a red – no matter, and we did have a bit of a drive after the train ride ahead of us.
I started off with an excellent special salad of the day: white endive in an avocado-lemon dressing. This was so perfect and just looked – and tasted – like Springtime on a plate. At our bartender’s suggestion David went for the fresh Burrata served caprese-style with tomatoes and basil. The burrata was great; the tomatoes were a tad under-ripe (we’re a little ways off from tomato season in these parts.)
I was craving some serious beef after a few days of mostly eating pasta and salads, so for my main I chose the Hanger steak with roasted potatoes. Now that was probably my favorite dish of the trip – perfectly tender and medium-rare, served in a tasty sauce and with excellently seasoned rosemary potatoes. David, too, made an excellent choice: a special of Polenta-crusted sea bass in a red wine reduction sauce. This just proved how good fish and red wine can go together when the reduction is done right – and I loved the little taste of his broccoli rabe which I tasted. For once it was not served loaded with garlic but just with some whole cloves I could easily avoid.
Everything else had been so good, so far, we had to go for a dessert – a shared slice of Oreo cheesecake, which I found I just couldn’t stop eating until it was all gone.
Our bill before tip was just over $150 – so easily the “cheapest” of our three Italian feasts but far from the least satisfactory. It would be hard for me to pick a favorite, personally, between especially Caravaggio and Gallo Nero. But I’d say that on my own I’d be most likely to return to Gallo Nero, to snag a seat at the bar and enjoy a more casual but excellent Italian meal when in the city. I certainly plan on going back as soon as I get the chance…
23 E. 74 Street
New York, NY 10021.
Phone: (212) 288-1004
Bottega del Vino
7 E. 59 St. (corner of 5th Ave.)
New York, NY 10022
Phone: (212) 223-3028
420 W. 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Phone: (212) 265-6660