Fifteen years ago, Florent Morellet stood outside his shiny new outpost on Gansevoort Street, tickled by the way the light from Restaurant Florent menacingly cast the rows of meat hooks across the road, and divining how one day Manhattan's meatpacking district would be "just like Les Halles" in Paris, full of joie de vivre in addition to club-kid hip. His prediction was based on what he believed was an integral similarity between Americans and the French. "They both love going someplace dirty," he said. "Sleazy locations make them feel fabulous." Moments later, a well-tailored potential customer got out of a cab, teetered unsteadily in her open-toed Ferragamos across the cobblestones, and stumbled into a tureen-deep pool of milky white tallow. Her first scream scattered every rodent between Jane and 14th Streets. Her second got her former cab to stop. Undeterred, Florent offered that eyebrow-arched half-smile that every Gallic-accented charmer since Fernandel has invoked when reaffirming the inevitable. "She'll come back. And she'll bring her friends."
Florent must feel like Nostradamus these days. Not only did she return, she changed her shoes. In fact, so formidable is the platoon of ladies in high-heeled boots that their combined perfumes almost obliterate the odor of the still-treacherous cobblestones. And while the success of nearby Pastis may be what finally turbocharged the area's current land rush to popularity, inside any McNally restaurant is a kingdom unto itself. Meanwhile, as you enter the buoyant tumult of Macelleria, it's apparent that owners Violetta and Sergio Bitici are wisely following the easygoing, crowd-pleasing guidelines set by the prescient Frenchman.
The goal was to make a place with just enough style so you don't feel like you're slumming, but with not enough style to make you shift gears. The result? A lot of happy angels with dirty traces. Neither its high bricked walls nor its concrete floors and big sliding metal door betray the space's deliciously low beginnings as a meat locker. The seating plan is informal, almost too fluid, creating as many bottlenecks as you can find in a beer garden during Oktoberfest.
Then there is the internationally culled staff, more dutiful than focused. Some of their lapses are the result of second-language problems. (When we complained about some nearby smoking, our waiter promised to take care of it right away. He returned five minutes later, apologizing for forgetting to bring us an ashtray.) And some are the result of Macelleria's atmosphere, which encourages exuberance in its weekend clientele of the arm-flailing, "Hey, waiter!" sort that breaks the staff's rhythm and makes Manhattan natives wish their island were surrounded by drawbridges.
Will any of the above seriously test your jocularity level? As your cousin who wants to borrow money might tell you, "Everything is relative." If Macelleria surrounded you with long white damask and asked you to enjoy a $36 sautéed Muscovy duck breast while waiters kept pressing their thighs against your table trying to scooch by, weaker men could develop facial ticks before dessert. But when that bare wood table is boasting a snappy, crispy roasted duck in orange sauce for $16; clams casino that have more peppery spunk than they have bread crumbs for $7; a huge tender-aged and smartly seasoned sirloin for $26; and a lusciously heady fennel sausage crowning a bowl of garlic-bathed cannelini beans for $13, it doesn't take long to come up with a few other reasons why your fellow diners are getting pumped.
In the tradition of Lupa and Pearl Oyster Bar in the Village, Uncle Nick's on the West Side, and Gennaro's way uptown, Macelleria requires certain accommodations on your part for its lax but wallet-watching charm to succeed. The equation is not yet flawless. Volume, plus occasional overzealous wrist action with the salt shaker, causes the kitchen some consistency problems. Herb-grilled quails are delicious one night and street-pretzel brackish the next. A whole-herb baked Sarago is barely five minutes past capitalizing on its flaky fragrancy. The golden-skinned chicken has a pleasant red-wine sauce but tastes as if it had been baked dry. And though both the tortelloni and papardelle are generously portioned and heartily winter-ready, the respective wild-boar and oxtail sauces need more oomph not to get buried by the spice of any medium-bodied Italian red wine.
However, the pasta e fagioli almost beats not having a fireplace, it's fun to dunk duck livers in a thick herbed polenta, and linguini in garlic and oil -- so simple it's almost always tricked up -- is blissfully uninventive. A novel, barely sweet blueberry-sauced pork loin shook off any pancake allusions after the first bite. Unfortunately, all the desserts taste store-bought. There is effortlessness and then there is ordinariness. The latter is never a bargain.
"This is my kind of place!" exclaims the guy who flailed for the waiter. Is Macelleria your kind of place? Well, it's what folks come down to the meat-packing district for. Something easy, something fun, somewhere you can misbehave -- a little -- and not have to sit opposite Regis to pay for it. Just the way Florent envisioned it would be. Except he never factored in the heels. But then, if you've ever been down to Florent's spectacular Gansevoort Street Bastille Day celebration, you'd see why he never gave it a second thought: He walks in them more effortlessly than you do.
An aside: rare is the flailer who does not have a partner of equal self-importance and obliviousness. So it was no surprise that while the King of Short Hills was swaying in the wind, his wife was "putting on her face" at the table. Foundation, mascara, blush, spray perfume. If she'd had a vanity mirror, she might have plucked. If only she were alone in this. Dear ladies and friends, there are bathrooms in every restaurant. With mirrors and lights -- and privacy. Men have always forgiven you for applying lipstick at tableside. After all, chewing predates Revlon's permanent color. However, would you like to see him reapply his deodorant, clean his ears, shave with leftover Evian and a disposable razor? It's really no different. Even if your arsenal comes out of a Fendi baguette, it's bad manners. Keep it up, and don't blame me if you begin smelling Right Guard instead of nutmeg with his cappuccino.