Food scholars often note the similarities between Italian and Chinese food. There is the dumpling and pasta connection, of course. In a recent interview with the Times, Marcella Hazan pointed out that both cultures favor a frenzied, helter-skelter approach to dining, as opposed to the rigid French, who structure everything around the main course. Which leads to another, more esoteric similarity. Chinese-restaurant menus have always been long, haphazard documents filled with endless, puzzling choices. Once upon a time, Italian menus were relatively straightforward, but these days, they’re suffering from a similar case of bloat. In fashionable new Italian joints, variety and volume are all the rage. There are crudo sections and pizza and panini sections, and that’s before you even get to the antipasti. Thanks to high-minded omnivores like Mario Batali, whole columns are devoted to viscera and offal (as at a Chinese restaurant), and it’s possible to spend long hours puzzling over the flowery fine-print descriptions of the pasta dishes alone.
So when I sat down to my first dinner at a new Italian restaurant on 55th Street called Abboccato, my first reaction, as a professional critic, was a long, weary sigh. The menu was a baroque document, freighted with Italianate descriptions, all printed, like some faux version of the Magna Carta, on thickly yellowing parchment paper. Among the numerous “Secondi Piatti” choices were “Piccione Arrosto con le Erbette e Tortino di Zucca” (roasted squab) and “Cernia al Vapore d’Olio d’Oliva con Cavolfiore, Capperie e Uva Sultania” (grouper). If that didn’t fill us up, there were nine antipasti items, eight pastas, three soups, six side dishes, and a series of hulking beef platters, carved tableside, for two. Then there was the room itself, which, if you squint your eyes, looks uncannily like a fancy but not very promising Chinese restaurant. It’s small, crowded, and dimly lit. The big, round tables tip when you lean on them; spidery lighting sconces protrude from the walls; and the ceiling is plastered with little waves of white stucco, in what one wag at our table called the “Nouveaux Bronx Italian style.”
But then our meal began, and my mood brightened—at first by a little, and then by quite a lot. The proprietors of Abboccato are the Livanos family, owners of Molyvos and the fine seafood restaurant Oceana. They are diligent, successful restaurateurs, and if they haven’t quite gotten the hang of the new Italian aesthetic yet, they certainly know how to choose a chef.
Jim Botsacos is the executive chef at Abboccato, and his competence and ambition are evident with the arrival of the antipasti. There was a crunchy fritto misto, caked in polenta and served on a white linen napkin, followed by a juicy knot of quail stuffed, in the Umbrian style, with mortadella. There was a pretentious though excellent tasting plate of buffalo mozzarella, and an ingenious foie gras dish served with soft gnocchi dusted with espresso crumbs. My grilled tripe, which can taste like cow guts in the wrong hands, was mild and lemony here, and the jaded crudo fiends at my table heaped praise on the uni in particular, which is served in its shell, mingled with olive-oil gelato and candied Meyer lemon.
If this doesn’t sound like your average Batali-inspired, rustic Italian pig-out, that’s because it’s not. The menu at Abboccato may be jumbled and overwrought, but the food has a polished, uptown elegance. Among the pastas, there are two very good ravioli, one filled with beets and Gorgonzola and sprinkled with poppy seeds, the other stuffed with wild greens. The excellent seafood pasta I sampled was folded with sweet razor clams and slivers of chewy, dissolving fish roe called bottarga, and the carbonara is made with strands of bucatini, salty bits of duck prosciutto, and whipped duck-egg yolks that grow richer and more buttery as you get to the bottom of the dish. The elaborate meat dishes for two are mostly worth their high sticker price (they’re all over $30 per head, without side dishes), particularly the Fiorentina porterhouse (served in a proper sauce of anchovies and crushed garlic), the big, truncheon-size veal shank, and the rack of lamb, which is baked, pastry-style, in a sea-salt crust infused with fresh mint.
Other potentially gut-busting dishes are treated in a similarly refined, uptown way. My dainty serving of suckling pig was stewed in milk for hours, cut off the bone, and garnished with hazelnuts and a smooth potato purée. My friend the offal hound enjoyed his sweetbreads, which have a nice candied crunch and are served with round pasta and sautéed mushrooms. The chicken dish I sampled was stewed to a nice, fragile sweetness (in the Roman style, with tomatoes, black olives, rosemary, and red peppers), and wild boar was cut in cubes, dunked in a chocolate sauce, and served with veal cheeks flavored with perhaps a little too much vanilla.
The fish dishes tended to be equally experimental. One evening, I ordered the monkfish, which was cut in little discs, dusted with fennel pollen, and served with tiny carrots infused with the taste of oranges. Then there’s the aforementioned baroquely named grouper, which turns out to be a subtly flavored, subtle-tasting piece of fish, poached in olive oil and served with a delicate combination of cauliflower, capers, and raisins.
Abboccato is attached to a small midtown hotel called the Blakely, and on the evenings I dropped in, the dinner crowd was a strange combination of midtown sophisticates and random tourists who’d wandered in off the street. The service is competent in a flowery, exaggerated sort of way, but the space is so small that the wait staff are constantly running into each other.
This does not detract from the quality of pastry chef David Carmichael’s very accomplished desserts. The last time I checked, there were ten in all, including sweet, crunchy nut dumplings from Friuli, a velvet panna cotta bombed with pomegranate seeds, and a creamy round tart made with buffalo-milk ricotta and served with a little square of honeycomb. But my personal favorite was a creation called “Dolce Federico.” It’s composed of toasted triangles of panettone spread with candied oranges, dotted with hazelnuts, and poured with an orange-flavored chocolate sauce. It’s a little club sandwich of sweet textures and flavors, and it tastes unlike any Chinese dessert you’ve ever had.
Ideal Meal: Crudo or quail stuffed with mortadella, pasta with razor clams and bottarga, bucatini carbonara, veal shank, “Dolce Federico.”
Factoid: The food isn’t cheap at Abboccato, but if it’s still truffle season, and you want to break the bank, order the tagliarini al tartufo bianco, with white truffles from Alba, for $120.