Imagine there’s something in the annals of dining literature to describe what, for the purpose of this column, I’ll call the Tiny Room Effect. According to the Tiny Room Effect, the same exact dish of pickled beets, say, or lobster Thermidor, tastes proportionately better in a smaller room that it does in a larger one. This phenomenon has no basis in empirical fact, of course. Like lots of things in the restaurant business, it’s rooted in the dark, fuzzy realm of perception. There are plenty of larger establishments (Le Bernardin and Daniel, for instance) serving fine food. But there’s something about the cozy exclusivity of the ten- or twenty-table room (the large places invariably have exclusive tiny tasting rooms) that focuses your attention on the plate. Smallness creates a sense of intimacy. Cook a piece of fish or a bowl of pasta and serve it in a large, impersonal space, and chances are, diners will feel that their meal has been prepared impersonally. Serve the same dish in a small, bustling room, and the same diners will feel like you’re cooking for them. They’ll feel like they’re part of a party, and they may even order a second bottle of wine.
Among Manhattan restaurateurs, the recent undisputed masters of the Tiny Room Effect have been Danny Abrams and his chef partner, Jimmy Bradley. In the past six years, they’ve opened three model small restaurants (Red Cat, the Harrison, and the Mermaid Inn), each serving an elegantly simple bistro menu, and each set in a cozy, neighborly space. Now comes their newest venture, Pace (the name means “peace” in Italian), which, surprisingly, is neither neighborly nor small. It’s an Italian restaurant created in the crowd-pleasing tradition of most new Italian restaurants in town today, which means the room is big and, for better or worse, the menu is, too. If you can’t squeeze into one of the 130 seats upstairs, you can repair to the basement (where you’ll find the private tasting room). There’s a long bar, which is elbow-to-elbow with revelers on most evenings, and a series of café tables overlooking the street. The walls are etched with what appear to be silver murals of old Rome, although if you squint your eyes these runic designs could be haystacks in Iowa, or ice sculptures in old Quebec.
These indistinct surroundings are a little unsettling for longtime devotees of Bradley and Abrams’s (like myself), and so is the menu, which by their normally terse, homey standards is a vast, complex document, bulging with flowery Italianate categories (crudi, panini, riso, etc.) and terms (sarde, cacciucco, maiale). Even more unsettling is the fact that Bradley himself isn’t in the kitchen at Pace (pronounced “PAH-che”). That job falls to a competent chef named Joey Campanaro, who used to run the kitchen at the Harrison. We began our meal with some crudi, the best of which were the tuna (garnished with tomatoes and a frizzling of garlic) and the raw scallops, which were sliced in half and served over little mounds of corn pudding. These were quickly followed to the table by a fleet of decent enough antipasti (roast eggplant served in earthen bowls, silver-white anchovies with red peppers, string beans with toasted almonds and ricotta) and several very fine panini, most notably the maiale, filled with soft crumblings of pork, sweet onions, and tart, melty slabs of Taleggio cheese.
I would have been happy to focus on my pork panino for a minute or two, but once the spigots start flowing in a fashionably rustic Italian restaurant, it’s hard to turn them off. The best of the insalata items were a thinly sliced vitello tonnato, and a baby-spinach salad bombed with toasted pecans and pieces of guanciale (hog’s-jowl bacon, popularized by the great druid of the rustic-Italian fad, Mario Batali). But my skewers of scallop and shrimp were muffled in too many bread crumbs, and the egg in the alluring-sounding truffled-egg toast was overdone, and after a moment I shoved it aside, as the pasta and risotto dishes began pelting down on the table. There are six pastas and five risos, and the best of them, I noticed, were sprinkled with crunchy bits of starch or fat. The bucatini all’amatriciana was one of these (it’s tossed with pieces of smoked pork), and so was the spaghettini, which contained chili flakes, anchovies, and toasted bread crumbs. All the risottos were good enough, particularly the tutto mare (shrimp, scallops, crab) and the Milanese, made with saffron, parmesan, and a hunk of braised veal rib smothered in a lemony gremolata paste.
Any one of these dishes might have tasted quite fine served in a tinier restaurant, on a smaller menu, but in the indistinct confines of Pace, their cumulative weight had a deadening effect. It didn’t help that most of the entrées seem designed almost exclusively for heft. There were big cigars of stuffed wild boar (leather-tough when I tried them), gristly, almost inedible slabs of pork liver, and fat sweetbreads rolled in blankets of prosciutto and seasoned like breakfast sausages, with too much sage. The meaty chicken fricassee was better (it’s served in a peasant’s pot), and so was the delicious veal chop, smothered in radicchio simmered with balsamic vinegar and pancetta, but the chicken breast I sampled appeared to be a heavy, Italianate version of chicken cordon bleu (it’s batter-fried, with cheese and prosciutto inside). Among seafood items, the cod and bass are served over vegetables in the standard restaurant way, the red mullet seemed overly mild despite a hearty olive-and-tomato sauce, and my fish stew was so loaded down with fishy items (lobster, seared scallops, etc.) that its soupy bouillabaisse element tasted less like nourishing broth than like watery gravy.
Bradley and Abrams are still canny restaurateurs, of course. Like all tiny-room experts, they know the benefits of volume, and they’re serving up rustic Italian cuisine for a reason. That’s because in this comfort-addled era, people seem to like it. They like warm chocolate cake for dessert, also, and fat, gnarled zeppoles dusted with powdered sugar, both of which I sampled after excavating some space in my stomach with a digestive glass of one of the restaurant’s many interesting and esoteric grappas. You don’t need any grappa to enjoy the small, even artful, rendition of apple spice cake (served with a little wheel of panna cotta) or the very nice vanilla-gelato affogato. Best of all, however, is the strawberry granita. This confection is made with puréed strawberries, which are mixed with sugar water and frozen overnight. The ice is then shaved into a glass between layers of creamy anise mousse and sprinkled with toasted almonds. It’s a classic tiny-room dish, and to enjoy its full effect, eat it with a small silver spoon, with your eyes closed, of course.
Ideal Meal: The bucatini all’amatriciana, the veal chop, and the strawberry granita. Attention, grappa fans: Pace offers ten impressive, diverse samples of this fiery liqueur.