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“This place feels very Bernie Madoff to me,” said my wife, as we scanned the intimate little room at Caravaggio, which opened among the lonely art galleries and half-empty boutiques just off Madison Avenue in the Seventies. There were plumes of bread sticks at the linen-topped tables and little bread baskets made of woven silver. The loquacious maître d’ looked as if he’d suddenly appeared from a semi-grand restaurant in Milan (“Yes, it’s true, I’ve been married five times”), as did the portly gourmand next to us, who was carrying a gold-tipped cane and wearing a handkerchief stuffed in his breast pocket. The graying, still-moneyed crowd sniffed white truffles shaved over plates of buttered fettuccine ($130, or $65 for an appetizer portion) and poured their big Tuscan wines from glass decanters. They wore spangled blouses and stiff corporate suits, and everyone in the brightly lit room seemed to know one another, including a gentleman in the corner who looked suspiciously like the governor of New Jersey.
This dose of extreme pre-bust nostalgia comes courtesy of the Bruno brothers, whose midtown restaurant, San Pietro, has served as a kind of unofficial lunchtime clubhouse for many of the city’s financial kingpins since it opened in 1991. Caravaggio, which occupies the old Coco Pazzo space on East 74th Street, seems to have been designed as a kind of intimate uptown refuge for the brothers’ traditional plutocrat clientele. Certainly the prices hover at the traditional plutocrat level. My simple-sounding “antipasto di mare” was not simple at all (shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat folded in an opulent sea-urchin sauce) and cost $25. The classic vitello tonnato (artfully thin veal, with a frothy tuna sauce) cost just a few dollars less ($22). The cheapest appetizer options on the elaborate menu are a pleasantly garlicky assemblage of snails from Sicily (set over a root-vegetable risotto and sprinkled with garlic chips), and a scraggly-looking salad tossed with cherry tomatoes—both are eighteen bucks.
But if, by some miracle, you’re not feeling a little pinched (or if you’re in the company of a generous, aged Upper East Side aunt), it must be said that this kind of intimate, old-world glitter still has its allure. The wine list at Caravaggio is as thick as a phone book, the pastas are stiffened with extravagant amounts of butter and cream, and the Italian (or maybe Albanian) waiters recite the endless list of daily specials with solemn ceremony, like actors on a stage. “Nice but heavy” was my neighbor’s assessment of her chicken-liver risotto ($25), which was followed to the table by bows of farfalle dressed with a heart-stopping Parmesan cream ($26), and a tangle of bacon-laced fettuccine all’Amatriciana ($22) rich enough to feed a family of four. That sturdy peasant delicacy bollito misto (assorted cow and chicken parts in a rich broth) is listed as an appetizer, but if you sample it before the pastas, you may find yourself falling into a dreamy, semi-comatose state before the $40 entrées ever arrive.
Fettuccine all’Amatriciana, bollito misto or Pollo Caravaggio, tiramisu.