March 1, 2004
If the West Village’s Bar Nocetti has a genuine neighborhood vibe, it’s no wonder: Partners Fred Nocetti and Frank Saponara are neighborhood guys. “I’m from Carmine Street, born and raised,” says Nocetti, whose family had a hardware store there for 75 years. “Frankie’s from Sullivan Street. We grew up together.” After decades of tending bar for other people, they took the inevitable plunge, enlisting Nocetti’s wife, designer Sonya Moro, to transform what used to be a transvestite burlesque club into a place of their own. And they didn’t forget their friends: They hired neighborhood fixture Jimmy Manga as chef—or more accurately, says Nocetti, “We pulled him out of retirement.” Saponara chips in, making the tomato sauce and roasting the delectable red peppers for the great thin-crust pizza; the dough comes from Zito’s Bakery. (Nocetti went to grammar school with Anthony Zito.) The pie’s already won accolades from a well-known neighborhood girl—Monica Lewinsky, who lives across the street.
143 Christopher Street
Is this the Big Apple or the Big Easy? It’s getting harder to tell, between the recent reappearance of redfish (a species we’d assumed Paul Prudhomme had blackened into extinction) and the French Quarter flair on delicious display at new restaurants like Natchez and Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar. The Cajun-Creole comeback gathers steam this week, as Jacques-Imo’s tries to replicate its funky Nawlins self on the considerably less funky Upper West Side—alligator-sausage cheesecake and all. Fans of the original’s famous fried chicken and swamp-scene mural will find both at Jacques-Imo’s NYC, where chef Steven Manning (of Bayou) will run the kitchen under the long-distance supervision of founder Jacques Leonardi, and owner Jim (Brother Jimmy’s BBQ) Goldman will set the proper juke-joint, bon temps tone.
366 Columbus Avenue, at 77th Street
Steaking a Claim
A Peter Luger legend crosses the bridge after 40 years.
In the world of steak, Peter Luger occupies a rarefied position, and in the world of Peter Luger, so did Wolfgang Zwiener, its former headwaiter. With his fastidious manner and Douglas Fairbanks mustache, the German-born Zwiener was a devoted career waiter, the kind who’s almost as quaint these days as a hat-check girl. After four decades of faithful service—and countless plates of porterhouse for two, three, or four—Zwiener is postponing retirement to open his own restaurant, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse. The project is actually the brainchild of Zwiener’s investment-banker son, Peter, and a pair of fellow Luger waiters, who persuaded Wolfgang to capitalize on his legendary reputation. (It didn’t hurt that the midtown space they had in mind came equipped with a striking Guastavino-vault ceiling.) The elegant room that they’ve renovated, a bigger menu with more seafood, and the credit-card policy (they take them) distinguish Wolfgang’s from Peter Luger. The meat, though, is USDA prime, dry-aged for about 28 days in a basement locker and cut into porterhouse steaks the same way they do it in Brooklyn. Aside from that, what does it take to make a steakhouse great? “Good service,” says Zwiener. “You have to be polite, friendly, and smiling. And every steak should come out sizzling.” Rob Patronite
4 Park Avenue, at 33rd Street
A Good Sub-stitute
For years, Alessandro Gualandi’s Italian-sandwich mecca, Melampo Imported Foods, was strictly a one-man show—and if you ever came out on the wrong end of one of his mood swings, you’d understand why. So it came as a shock when we noticed a mysterious presence a while ago assisting Gualandi from behind a curtain. Said presence, Walter Momente, has now emerged to reveal some changes at Melampo—for starters, its name, which Momente swears is and always has been Alidoro. We’ll have to take his word for it: Gualandi has sold the business to Momente, who’s valiantly carrying on the vaunted Italian-hero tradition, down to the signature (and spectacular) Alessandro dressing. Regulars might find Momente’s sunny sociability unsettling, but they’ll be relieved to hear that the house rules remain: “You still have to order by sandwich name,” says Momente, “but I’m more flexible.”
105 Sullivan Street
the underground gourmet
A Cook’s Touré
Despite the prevalence of peanut stews in West Africa, you don’t expect to see the jumbo-size jar of Skippy on the kitchen shelf at Yolélé, the new African-inspired restaurant in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The whiff of truffle oil in the mango-avocado salad’s dressing comes as even more of a surprise. But this is New York, not Dakar, and the Senegalese chef, Pierre Thiam, has probably picked up as much cooking in Soho and South Beach as he did back home. The booming African soundtrack transports you—as does the décor of ornately carved masks and benches. The plates, too, are works of art, and their contents are elegantly arranged: Skewered lamb didi haoussa is marinated in spicy peanut sauce and served with an even spicier tomato purée. Moist and meaty whole roasted sea bass benefits from a zesty tomato-onion relish. That Skippy comes in handy for vegetarian mafé, the traditional Senegalese stew (if only the rice weren’t so crusty). Thiam ventures into Pan-African territory with Nigerian akara (black-eyed-pea fritters) and Moroccan couscous but returns to Senegal for tiakri, the milky millet dessert that might be an acquired taste. For something more familiar, try the deliciously sharp ginger juice, with a flavor that translates into any culinary language.
1108 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
The Kindest Cut
Like all red-blooded American males, chefs love their toys. Among the prosciutto posse, a vintage hand-cranked Berkel meat slicer, like the one they use at Chelsea Market’s BuonItalia, above, is almost a fetish object. Silvano Marchetto has one just for show at Da Silvano Cantinetta, and Mario Batali has a Ferrari-red fleet to rival Jay Leno’s car collection, including a twin set dating from 1929. Frank Crispo—who swears by them because the low speeds don’t mess up the flavor of his prized prosciutto di San Daniele—scored a 1908 model from a guy in Jersey for only $200. If you’re in the market, BuonItalia has another vintage electric-and-manual model that goes for a cool $12,500, and Berkel’s Long Island City branch has just introduced a $4,500 reproduction—a relative bargain in the pursuit of the perfect slice of ham.
75 Ninth Avenue, at 15th Street
In a corner of Little India, how to choose?
The cultured nose knows that Kalustyan’s name on this Curry Hill awning means the new Masala Café, with its desert-sand tones and soft shaded light, will have impeccable products. Chef-partner Geetika Khanna (formerly of Raga) has the venerable Middle Eastern bazaar’s vast storehouse to work with in creating her Indian-inspired fusion: green almonds, sumac powder and saffron, Sicilian pistachios, exotic chutneys, and select basmati rice. And she runs with it. Lush panko-dusted scallops, jumbo prawns in a peppery tomato dress, and wondrously rare salmon crusted with mint chutney on a carpet of savory lentils hint of India. The Franglais tag of one evening’s special, goat curry à la maison, reminds us this isn’t Goa, and ambivalent palates will like that. Our local pals, seduced by a trio of crisp samosas in rice paper, unusual lentil bread with a shrimp-flecked dip, chai crème brûlée, and the saffron-scented rice pudding, rate this slightly uneven effort a big step up for the neighborhood already.
115 Lexington Avenue, at 28th Street