During the course of my culinary wanderings, I have observed that ear wires and fine food do not often mix. If you’re after a first-class meal and you see staff members at a particular restaurant wandering around, android-style, with wires protruding from their collars, it’s probably a good idea to turn and sprint in the opposite direction. The natural habitat for the ear wire is the nightclub, of course, or a political event crowded with presidential bodyguards. But in a restaurant, ear wires generally mean the proprietor is paying more attention to crowd control than to food. They mean large dining rooms and huge, overworked kitchens, and for a seasoned diner (as opposed to a seasoned clubgoer), they’re a sign of looming trouble, like petrels before a storm. So imagine my dismay, on my first visit to Vento Trattoria, the new Stephen Hanson venture in the meatpacking district, when I spotted one large, wired gentleman by the door, plus several others inside, all scurrying to and fro, proffering bottles of wine, barking directions, and earnestly muttering into their breast coats.
But then Hanson, who runs many large, profitable restaurants in town (Ruby Foo’s, Dos Caminos, Blue Water Grill, to name a few), is a master at orchestrating the glitzy, oversize culinary event. Unlike most trattorias, Vento has an actual nightclub in its basement (called Level V), replete with a D.J. booth, a glowing bar, and snug cocktail catacombs for furtive late-night socializing. It’s stuffed, along with two dining floors, into a slim, V-shaped building at the northern tip of Hudson Street, an area that, with Pastis down the street and the recent arrival of Spice Market and the Soho House, has become a kind of late-night food-court piazza. Unlike the quaint meatpacking-district dives of old, these new places are built for volume, and Vento is no exception. The walls are unadorned brick, and a simple wood stairway connects the dining levels with the nightclub below. The tables are polished and utilitarian, and there are so many of them that the long, tapering dining rooms have the look of giant, multilevel cafeterias set on the prow of a hip, overcrowded cruise ship.
The menu, as composed by Michael White (who is also the executive chef at Hanson’s flagship restaurant, Fiamma), is utilitarian, too. It’s built for volume and for quick, easy consumption, and in general the more complicated the dishes get, the more they fall apart. In accordance with our waiter’s wishes, our table prepared for the food with a whole array of wildly colored cocktails, all of them with catchy names like Bugatti and Vento Vortex (gin or vodka, crème de griotte, maraschino liqueur, and grapefruit juice). By the time the first salvo of dishes arrived, I was almost too addled to notice that many of them tasted pretty good. The baby polpette (meatballs sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan) are as good as you’ll find in a standard trattoria, and so is the crisp, salty fritto misto, served with a sidecar of citrus-flavored aïoli. There are seven wafer-thin pizzas to choose from, and all the ones I sampled were quite fine, especially the macellaio (spread with a crumbling of sausage and onions) and the funghi (composed of wild mushrooms, mozzarella, and many drops of white-truffle oil).
“Hanson, who runs many restaurants, is a master of the glitzy, oversize culinary event.”
Some of the pastas are very good, too, like chewy malfatti tossed with bits of sweet sausage and Parmesan, and a bowl of cream-laced casarecci garnished with peas, shreds of prosciutto, and truffles. If you’re wise, however, you’ll order another round of Bugattis and stop the meal right there. My portion of braised veal trotters seemed to have been overbraised by a week or two, and the lamb sausages tasted faintly of gas, as if they’d been blasted with a blowtorch. A similar propane residue hung over something called a veal porterhouse, which was also covered with a viscous gravy as thick as an oil slick. If you’re hungry for a piece of protein at Vento, stick with the fish, particularly the chaste, tasty orata, steamed with tomatoes and fennel and flavored with coriander and mint.
The desserts are restrained, by Hanson’s usual theatrical standards, and if I had to pick just two to take with me down into the dim, after-hours catacombs, I’d choose the zeppole, which are wrapped, like frites, in a twirl of paper, and the lemon tart, which is topped with blackberries and contains a sweet, satisfying deposit of syrup flavored with pistachio.
Extra Virgin, which opened recently a few blocks south of Vento in the West Village, is another Italian bistro designed for swanky late-night dining, although on a smaller, more neighborly scale than is currently fashionable in the meatpacking district. The wait staff appear to be earpiece-free, although the waitresses are dressed in skimpy black ninja outfits. In the evenings, the crowd spills out onto a row of café tables set up above the sidewalk, and if you happen to be crouched in the dark-blond, Lilliputian dining room, it’s sometimes difficult to hear yourself over the frantic, late-night din. No doubt the kitchen is Lilliputian, too, but the food that issues from it is reasonably priced (no dish is over $20) and often quite good. This is thanks to chef-owner Joey Fortunato, who has long experience in the bistro world and has filled his menu with satisfying items like fat scallops served “saltimbocca style” (in a rich veal sauce), pots of mussels flavored with curry and Chardonnay, and platters of frites that you can dip in a wickedly rich Gorgonzola fondue.
If you feel like an extended, after-hours group feed, there’s a selection of family-style blue plate specials on the menu. The paella (served Friday) was pretty good, as was the osso buco (Saturdays), although the grand helping of lemon chicken I ordered late one Tuesday evening was cooked to the point of bland extinction. Among the more demure dishes, the innovative Caesar salad is loaded with platoons of toasted pine nuts, sunchokes, and tangy white anchovies. The wild-mushroom fettuccine tasted flat, but a platter of crabmeat ravioli (with sweet raisins and a carrot-ginger sauce) elicited murmurs of satisfaction from the finicky eaters at my table. Ditto the branzino (served with a romesco sauce), and also the monkfish, which is spiked with bits of Serrano ham. Tarte Tatin is the safest pick on any dessert menu, and that’s the case here. The crust is flaky instead of chewy and decked with vanilla ice cream and a hint of butterscotch sauce. It may not be the real thing, exactly, but it’s as good an antidote as any to a bleary night out on the town.