In a business filled with random, elliptically named establishments (Ago, Elettaria, and Olana, to cite just a few recent ones), Bar Milano is one restaurant that looks almost exactly like its name sounds. Step inside the sleek two-room space, which opened six weeks ago in an innocuous gray building on lower Third Avenue, and you might actually think you’re in one of the more stylish precincts of Milan. Or if not Milan, exactly, then a well-imagined facsimile of the kind of casually elegant, darkly fashionable place—part upscale coffee bar, part first-class Alitalia dining lounge—found in many world capitals and frequented by Kate Moss groupies and crowds of pencil-thin gentlemen in Brioni suits. The café tables are set with packets of sugar like the ones you find in Italy. The bar serves shots of amaretto and grappa late into the night, and cups of espresso and macchiato in the morning. And if you wish to linger for a while over your coffee, you can even enjoy an egg-white frittata for breakfast.
This slick setup is the work of the young restaurateur Jason Denton and his brother, Joe, who have been operating successful, small-scale Italian joints in the city for several years now. The Dentons, who grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho, dreaming, presumably, of all the delicious foods they couldn’t eat, are responsible for New York’s toasted-panini craze (at ’ino) and were among the first restaurant pioneers to stake a claim on the Lower East Side (at ’inoteca). Bar Milano is their most ambitious, and conspicuously upscale, venture to date. To ensure success, they’ve recruited not one but two co-chefs (Steve Connaughton and Eric Kleinman, from Lupa and ’inoteca, respectively) and scoured Milan and the surrounding region for all sorts of stylistic touches. The wine display case is trimmed with dark wood and stocked with an impressive selection of boutique amarones and Barolos (there are over 400 bottles, all from Northern Italy), and the walls behind the bar and in the dining room are covered in panels of polished marble cut from quarries in Emilia-Romagna.
Is the food at Bar Milano as faithfully Milanese as the décor? Judging by the first wave of pastas to hit our table, the answer is, not really. For an Italian restaurant of even moderate aspirations, the pastas, at this early stage, are uneven, bordering on downright bad. My green, shrimp-stuffed agnolotti dumplings (they’re covered in a mint-flavored pea sauce) tasted like something foraged from a semi-reputable dim sum kitchen downtown. Ditto the tortellini in brodo (the watery broth of which was drained of all flavor) and the featureless Bolognese and duck ragùs, both of which top thick, forgettable pastas. The best ravioli, everyone at my table agreed, were the long, thin cuscini, stuffed with braised osso buco, and we also enjoyed the two generously portioned risottos, the best of which is made with a rich mix of mushrooms. If you want something approaching true Italian authenticity, however, the dish to get is the tripe, which is braised to a nice softness and poured over a bowl of butter-smooth polenta.
Is tonno e vitello, a dish of tuna and veal breast, a good substitute for a competent pasta Bolognese? Traditionalists may not think so, but I do. In fact, if you avoid the pastas almost entirely, it’s possible to have a sophisticated, even semi-Italian meal at Bar Milano. My generous portion of “carpaccio”—scallops with a helping of sea urchin—was flavored with a little too much lemon, but my friend the Octopus Snob gave his benediction to the tender polpo alla griglia, served with chopped bulbs of radicchio. This seems to be rabbit season at the trendier new Italian restaurants around town, and the very good rabbit terrine here is cut in thick, jellied slabs and mixed with a rustic combination of carrots, liver, and artichoke hearts. There are very nice fried oysters too (served with tasty little cabbage rolls stuffed with farro) and an excellent nouveau-Italian egg-roll creation called patata imbottita, which is made with a skin of shaved, crisp-fried potatoes filled with egg yolk and served with a creamy, hollandaise-like fonduta and a spoonful of caviar.
Similar upmarket flourishes run through the entrée list, which tends to veer away from Northern Italy and toward the kind of consciously fashionable grub that consciously fashionable New Yorkers are used to. My platter of scallops were the fat, sweet un-Mediterranean kind (they’re harvested by divers in the Atlantic), and the expertly sautéed monkfish is paired, not unpleasantly, with nuggets of seared foie gras from upstate New York. The branzino is filleted, in a citified way, and touched with balsamic, and my portion of fried rabbit was golden crisp like southern fried chicken, and tasted like it, too. The thick, extra-tender pork chop is more or less the same artisanal pork chop served all over this pork-chop-mad town, and the excellent bone-in veal alla milanese (sealed in bread crumbs, with chanterelles) is a faithful representation of the real thing. For $43, you can also get a nicely charred portion of rib eye, cut off the bone, Italian-style, dressed with an authentic Milanese gremolata and studded with rich bits of bone marrow.
These entrées give ballast to the somewhat spotty menu and add to that sense of chic bonhomie that the Dentons are so adept at creating. Bar Milano is filled with a mix of neighborly couples and clamorous urban sophisticates, most of whom look conspicuously happy to be there. The warm, yammering buzz they generate is enough to override any quibbles with the desserts, some of which are good and a few of which are not. To the latter category I submit the chalky, insubstantial torta di cioccolato (a kind of hazelnut-chocolate brownie) and the watery, grimly tepid cioccolato demitasse semifreddo, which barely tastes of chocolate at all. But there was nothing very wrong with my crispelle soufflé (a pleasant crêpe filled with fluffy mascarpone) or the rabarbaro panettone crostata, made with toasted panettone, white-chocolate cream, and a dappling of yellow raisins. Do they serve confections like this in Milan? Close your eyes, knock back a cup of espresso, and it’s possible to convince yourself, for a second or two, that they do.