Michelin has spoken. Chefs are exhaling again (or fuming). The requisite toasts and sour grapes have subsided. Lever House may have outranked its celebrated rival across the street, but management admits there has been no influx of power brokers abandoning their customary lunch tables in The Four Seasons’ Grill Room. In fact, if the past few weeks provide any indication, the Tire Man’s Manifesto doesn’t seem to be having that much effect on local dining habits.
One reason could be that the flatly written compendium is particularly stingy with praise when it comes to our hometown’s favorite cuisine. It’s disappointing, though not unexpected, that Michelin reviewed nearly three times as many Italian restaurants as French yet bestowed a solitary star on only four: Babbo (Batali was ticked), Fiamma Osteria (chef Michael White was delighted), the underrated Scalini Fedeli, and Lo Scalco. Who? And who wants to be one-upped by a bunch of foreigners? I had to go.
Despite citations from the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine in Lo Scalco’s vestibule that herald chef-owner Mauro Mafrici, no one I know had ever suggested it for dinner. The fully covered street windows are easy to miss. The dining room is hidden by a freestanding center wall. And the room’s most striking aspect is not the white ceramic chandeliers, nor the profusion of white arches crisscrossing the ceiling, nor the fence around a triangular hole in the floor through which you can see the wine cellar. It’s the utter lack of energy—as if, regardless of the hour, you arrived during setup.
It’s not just that attendance always appears sparse; there’s no maître d’ or personality presiding over the space. The waiters, polite as they are, don’t seem prepared to face patrons with assurance and pride. Everyone on the floor behaves as if they’re kitchen runners who’ve suddenly been recruited for tableside work.
Here’s what they should be trumpeting. Every single one of Lo Scalco’s pastas is superb, some of the finest you can find in New York. Forget the novel but confusing menu, which offers meals by region (Sardinia, Lombardy, etc.), and go right to the middle courses—all pastas. Mafrici’s hand-cut tortellini has a crisp-edged lightness that nearly upstages the luxuriant ragù of mushrooms inside. A sauce as simple as tomato, pancetta, and fresh bay leaves is startling, because the tonnarelli it dresses has such a fresh, nutty taste. Mafrici’s herb risotto tastes as though the bouquet of greens were torn from its roots moments before. And best of all, veal-stuffed ravioli in a sauce of tomato, chicken stock, and freshly crushed pistachios will have you drifting dreamily over the too-staid surroundings.
If only the rest of the menu inspired similar levitation. Most of the appetizers are woefully mundane. Tender swordfish is too faintly smoked and served with a tame caponata. Fritto misto is fine but undistinguished, as are velvety but bland baccalà, and sautéed artichoke with colorless shrimp, but sausages served in a rich brodetto of cannellini beans and baby broccoli earn their place alongside the semolina. Entrées are equally unimpressive. Pork and saltimbocca are sorely overcooked. Tuna sits unyielding on its braised onions, and the cuttlefish is tough. But the braised beef, which tastes oddly like Katz’s brisket, and a roasted branzino fillet get your fork eager to taste more.
Maybe you should just skip to the desserts, because they’re nearly as delectable as the pastas. What a pleasure to find a warmly inviting chocolate cake—this one with hazelnut—without a molten center. Mascarpone zabaglione is such a lovely sin you don’t even need the strawberries. Tart roasted apples are surrounded by a rustic caramel crust with delicious pistachio ice cream. And the coffee panna cotta, to paraphrase that commercial, is why-the-hell-would-you-ever-waste-your-time-on-yogurt good. So far, Lo Scalco is too erratic and earthbound to make me follow that star. But in this cloudy day and age, who’s foolish enough to ignore pasta sent from heaven when it’s yours for the twirling?