The endless stream of restaurants a professional critic must endure fall into various categories. There are the decent establishments respectfully reviewed then politely ignored, the innocuous places that aren’t good or bad enough to be reviewed at all, and the grizzly establishments it’s one’s duty to review but that you would never be caught dead in again. There are those grand venues you might revisit in the company of a well-heeled banker friend, and then there are those very rare establishments that you actually do revisit when, God forbid, you have to pay for the meal yourself. For this critic, Bar Stuzzichini, which opened several months ago in a cavernous space on lower Broadway, is one of those places. I’m biased by certain factors, of course. Bar Stuzzichini is in my approximate neighborhood. It is modestly priced (off-duty restaurant critics tend to be cheap), and as the name indicates, you can dine by yourself (off-duty restaurant critics also like to be left alone) at one of two long, convivial bars.
The room, for the record, is not one of Bar Stuzzichini’s strong points. It’s overly big and poorly lit, and decorated with shades of firehouse red and lots of prefab wood moldings, like some unfortunate marriage between Pottery Barn and a local outlet of Pizzeria Uno. But what the restaurant lacks in style it makes up for with the easy, even artful simplicity of its cooking. Stuzzichini are the Southern Italian equivalent of antipasti (the word comes from stuzzichare, meaning “to pick”), a series of small dishes served, usually, at the bar. This means candy-size rolls of eggplant stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese, gold-brown arancini (rice balls) as big as plums, and artichokes, frizzled in the Roman Jewish style and served on sheets of butcher paper with wedges of lemon. The meatballs aren’t the usual giant cannonballs; they’re bite-size, with a crisp exterior, and the codfish stuzzichini come stacked in little strips, each one fried, like zeppole, in a balloon-thin batter crust.
The chef at Bar Stuzzichini is Paul Di Bari (formerly of the Austrian restaurant Wallsé), and he imbues many of the dishes on his sparely edited menu with a light, gourmet touch. There are only five pastas available, but at least three of these (the handmade gnocchi Amatriciana folded in a ragù made with guanciale and onions, the chewy tagliolini alla limone with crunchy bits of pistachio, and the orecchiette mixed with spring peas, sweet onions, and cream) are themselves worth the trip. Order them with the weirdly delicious Scamorza alla brace—smoked mozzarella melted into a crunchy pancake and scattered with olive oil infused with chile pepper. The lemon chicken ($17) is made with a similarly tasty crunch, and I’ve found, after repeated experimentation, that it goes well with the cicoria salad, which is a mop of bitter greens tossed in a creamy anchovy dressing.
Among the big-ticket items, my favorites are the grilled swordfish ($23), enlivened with a big spoonful of Sicilian-style pesto, and the excellent short-rib braciole, simmered to an agreeable softness in olive oil, garlic, and chunks of tomato. There’s a grilled rib eye, too, which seemed a little puny for its $29 price tag, and an innocuous dish of baccalà made even saltier by a surfeit of capers and green olives. When the room fills up, the wait staff can get overwhelmed, so the best place to dine is at the bar. If it’s lunchtime, order the almost dainty “salsiccia burger” ($10), consisting of a spiced Sicilian sausage patty served on a soft roll. If it’s dessert time, order the cannoli (tipped with pistachios or shavings of chocolate), the dense olive-oil cake topped, this summer, with cherries, or the creamy, bracing affogato, presented the way you’d expect at a bar, in a simple white cappuccino cup.
For weary veterans of the New York dining scene, Gemma, which opened this June in a bunkerlike annex next to the Bowery Hotel, is a more familiar kind of Italian restaurant. It’s that peculiar big-city hybrid—let’s call it the “Italian brasserie”—modeled after the popular French-style brasseries opened by Keith McNally and his numerous imitators. There is a copper-covered bar up front, which fills up in the evenings with mobs of jolly, overtanned revelers, grinning their toothy end-of-summer grins. The eating rooms are carefully contrived to convey equal parts rustic, old-shoe comfort (thatched wine bottles hanging from rafters, half-burned candelabra, farm-style tables made from distressed wood) and chic bonhomie. The menu is a grab bag, not of regional Italian cuisines but of market-tested, consumer-approved styles. There are fashionable crudi, crunchy crostini, and wood-fired pizzas, and even a selection of Italian cheeses replete with tasting notes printed on the menu in a flowery French manner.
There’s an awful lot about Gemma, in fact, that echoes Keith McNally’s own recently opened Italian brasserie, Morandi. At Gemma, however, the rooms are slightly more commodious, the service is slightly less chaotic, and the menu is less busy and more manageable, albeit in a predictable way. This is especially true among the smaller dishes like the crudi (try the sea bass) and the antipasti (the fritto misto dusted with frizzled lemon zest is my favorite). The pastas (rigatoni with chunky pieces of ham, slightly sludgy gnocchi) aren’t wonderful, but they’re serviceable. The “secondi” items were better than that, especially the brick-flattened chicken (which is a quarter more expensive than its equivalent at Bar Stuzzichini), and the nicely salty rib-eye bistecca, which was so large, none of the party hounds at my table could finish it. Among the desserts, the party hounds liked the smooth mascarpone tart the best. The worst, they all agreed, was the Rabelaisian calzone di Nutella, a giant sack of dough bloated, in a most unglamorous way, with ricotta cheese and viscous oceans of Nutella.