Opening a successful big-money restaurant in this finicky town has always been a dark, mercurial art. But these days, with the economy being buffeted by hazardous downdrafts and popular tastes changing at warp speed, the process can be downright perilous. Just ask that grizzled veteran of the New York dining scene, Robert De Niro. This past year, he and a group of constantly revolving partners have, at great cost and frustration, opened (and in one case, closed) two vastly different styles of Italian restaurant in the same corner space of the new Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca. The first was the New York outlet of a traditional, upmarket Italian joint favored by the movie glitterati in West Hollywood called Ago. The waiters wore white shirts with vests, like bartenders in an elderly Vegas hotel. The menu was an antique assemblage of pricey, tediously familiar entrées (greasy veal Milanese, wrinkled disks of eggplant Parmesan) and tired red-sauce ragùs. The room was designed to inspire grandeur but felt vacant and bland, possibly because, as the acid reviews rolled in, nobody was ever there. Ten months after it opened, the starchy waiters were sent packing and Ago mercifully disappeared.
The latest Italian restaurant in De Niro’s star-crossed space is called Locanda Verde (“green inn”), and in style, conception, and tone it’s as different from its predecessor as a raucous, deceptively sophisticated pop band is from the provincial touring company of a tattered old Broadway show. To effect this makeover, De Niro and his partners enlisted a group of canny local professionals (notably Josh Pickard of Chinatown Brasserie, and Ken Friedman of the Spotted Pig) to update the kitchen and revamp the problematic room. The formerly barn-size space is now divided by curving, wood-rimmed banquettes into smaller, more intimate dining sections, and a granite-topped, brasserie-style bar has been installed to promote a casual, tavernlike feel. The white tablecloths have disappeared, replaced by rows of chockablock café tables, and tall French windows now open onto the sidewalk so crowds of casual diners can sip their rhubarb-tinged Bellinis while breathing fumes from the traffic on Greenwich Street.
The most radical overhaul, however, is in the kitchen, which is now overseen by the celebrated chef Andrew Carmellini. Carmellini is a protégé of Daniel Boulud (he was head chef at Café Boulud for years), and he later ran the critically acclaimed Italian restaurant A Voce before leaving in a dispute with the owner. Carmellini is a master of classical French (and Italian) technique, but at Locanda Verde (where he is a partner), he chucks it all to cook “family style” food for the masses. His menu is filled with lots of fashionable, small-plate “cicchetti,” including mounds of fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta (sprinkled liberally with sea salt) and melty slices of “testa della casa” (headcheese) antipasti decked with tangy pickled vegetables. The best of these early finger foods, though, are the crostini, which the chef piles alternately with faintly spicy summer corn (over toasted prosciutto bread), smooth dabs of puréed chicken liver, and mounds of blue crab leavened with jalapeño and a light touch of cream.
“This is a long way from Café Boulud,” someone at the table remarked, as the waiter hoisted plate after plate of aggressively rustic antipasti and pasta dishes to our table through crowds of revelers thronged two rows deep at the bar. Given Carmellini’s reputation as a noodle genius, the pastas are a surprisingly mixed bag (when in doubt, order the reliably delicious “Grandmother’s Ravioli,” or the green fettuccine with “white” pork and veal Bolognese), but everyone gave thumbs-up to the thick, delicately fatty slab of rabbit terrine (garnished with stewed cherries), and the mini meatball sliders, which are made with ground lamb and topped with thin, barely perceptible slices of cucumber. Carmellini’s rubbery farmhouse interpretation of “tripe alla Parmigiana” (it’s served with a fried duck egg) was too funky even for my friend the Tripe Nut, although both the head-on prawns (with lemon and frizzled garlic) and the grilled octopus with strips of fresh-cut summer beans were perfectly cooked.
There are only seven “secondi” entrées on the menu at Locanda Verde, and, in line with Carmellini’s populist mission, none costs over $25. My wife didn’t have anything very inspiring to say about her helping of broccoli-rabe sausage served over chalky, elephant-size white beans (“This tastes like Tuscan truckers’ food,” was her terse comment), or her neighbor’s wet, slightly neutered-looking fillet of trout resting on a wan sauce made with yellow peppers. My eagerly awaited serving of porchetta (described on the menu as “the way I like it”) turned out to be a tasty though overwhelming pile of thinly sliced Tuscan-style pork, studded here and there with squares of chewy cracklings. Both the hanger steak (heaped over a cool mash of crushed potatoes) and the grilled-squab special (with fresh figs, over tangy, bacon-laced lentils) were nicely cooked, however, and if you’re dining with a ravenous crowd, order the bountiful, garlic-crusted chicken for two, which the chef plates on a groaning wooden board, over mountains of zucchini and fennel.
This kind of crowd-pleasing cooking isn’t designed to win culinary awards, of course. It’s designed to promote a good time in a casually stylish, relatively economical way, and judging by the crowds of people who are bull-rushing into De Niro’s new restaurant, it’s succeeding. Unlike its doomed predecessor, Locanda Verde is open for an Italian-accented breakfast and a neighborly, brasserie-style lunch, and if it’s elegant ready-made desserts you want, the kitchen has plenty of those, too. Pastry chef Karen DeMasco (famous in food circles as the original dessert goddess at Craft) produces an interestingly salty panna cotta made with sheep’s milk, and a cool wheel of semifreddo chocked with toasted almonds. The most bizarre of her new creations is a mishmash of cakes and gelati called “La Fantasia di Tropicale.” The most satisfying are the deceptively simple tarts and cakes, in particular the chocolate torta (touched with spiced caramel) and a velvet-smooth lemon tart that is cut in a wedge and softened, in a subtly updated way, with a spoonful of buttermilk gelato.