This place feels very Bernie Madoff to me,” said my wife, as we scanned the intimate little room at Caravaggio, which opened not long ago among the lonely art galleries and half-empty boutiques just off Madison Avenue in the Seventies. There were plumes of bread sticks at the linen-topped tables and little bread baskets made of woven silver. The loquacious maître d’ looked as if he’d suddenly appeared from a semi-grand restaurant in Milan (“Yes, it’s true, I’ve been married five times”), as did the portly gourmand next to us, who was carrying a gold-tipped cane and wearing a handkerchief stuffed in his breast pocket. The graying, still-moneyed crowd sniffed white truffles shaved over plates of buttered fettuccine ($130, or $65 for an appetizer portion) and poured their big Tuscan wines from glass decanters. They wore spangled blouses and stiff corporate suits, and everyone in the brightly lit room seemed to know one another, including a gentleman in the corner who looked suspiciously like the governor of New Jersey.
This dose of extreme pre-bust nostalgia comes courtesy of the Bruno brothers, whose midtown restaurant, San Pietro, has served as a kind of unofficial lunchtime clubhouse for many of the city’s financial kingpins since it opened in 1991. Caravaggio, which occupies the old Coco Pazzo space on East 74th Street, seems to have been designed as a kind of intimate uptown refuge for the brothers’ traditional plutocrat clientele. Certainly the prices hover at the traditional plutocrat level. My simple-sounding “antipasto di mare” was not simple at all (shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat folded in an opulent sea-urchin sauce) and cost $25. The classic vitello tonnato (artfully thin veal, with a frothy tuna sauce) cost just a few dollars less ($22). The cheapest appetizer options on the elaborate menu are a pleasantly garlicky assemblage of snails from Sicily (set over a root-vegetable risotto and sprinkled with garlic chips), and a scraggly-looking salad tossed with cherry tomatoes—both are eighteen bucks.
But if, by some miracle, you’re not feeling a little pinched (or if you’re in the company of a generous, aged Upper East Side aunt), it must be said that this kind of intimate, old-world glitter still has its allure. The wine list at Caravaggio is as thick as a phone book, the pastas are stiffened with extravagant amounts of butter and cream, and the Italian (or maybe Albanian) waiters recite the endless list of daily specials with solemn ceremony, like actors on a stage. “Nice but heavy” was my neighbor’s assessment of her chicken-liver risotto ($25), which was followed to the table by bows of farfalle dressed with a heart-stopping Parmesan cream ($26), and a tangle of bacon-laced fettuccine all’Amatriciana ($22) rich enough to feed a family of four. That sturdy peasant delicacy bollito misto (assorted cow and chicken parts in a rich broth) is listed as an appetizer, but if you sample it before the pastas, you may find yourself falling into a dreamy, semi-comatose state before the $40 entrées ever arrive.
Maybe that’s why the dignified Upper East Side ladies at my table preferred the lighter “primi” entrées to the predictable cavalcade of trophy-size veal chops ($45) and a thick, Madoff-era bistecca ($42). Their favorites included the grandly named “Pollo Caravaggio” (roasted chicken over a gourmet stew of farro and Tuscan beans), little nuggets of monkfish served in a possibly too-sweet port reduction, and a slip of crispy branzino fillet ($38), which the kitchen plates over a light broccoli purée scattered with wedges of grapefruit. The wines, meanwhile, aren’t at all modest (most bottles cost over $150, including an ’89 Haut-Brion for $2,200), and neither are the $15 desserts. To economize, avoid the wines altogether, and ask for four spoons and your coffee. Then pass around a single order of the mud-pie-size gianduja chocolate (with goat’s-milk ice cream) or the tiramisu, which is constructed, layer by layer, in a glittering snifter and ceremonially stuck with a straw made of spun sugar.
Hotel Griffou, which opened several months ago in another cozy retread restaurant space (this one recently occupied by Marylou’s, on 9th Street, in the Village), has also been conceived as a kind of dining club, though with a different clientele in mind. There’s no name at the entrance of the underground townhouse space (the owners are veterans of those seminal neo-speakeasy joints Freemans and the Waverly Inn), which leads down into a warren of rooms, some of them the size of walk-in closets. The narrow bar in the front is painted in shades of pink, like an Edwardian bordello, and if you get there in the late hours of the evening, you might find yourself (like I did) flattened against the wall by packs of braying Englishmen. The darkened little dining rooms have names like the Library and the Salon, and when you’re finally seated in one of them, it’s difficult to know whether you’ve arrived in the restaurant’s inner sanctum or some dimly lit, antically decorated version of Siberia.
Not that it matters, in the end. Scene restaurants aren’t built around their kitchens, as a rule. But it’s also a rule that if the food borders on the grisly, the scene probably won’t endure. Our appetizers included fishy hamachi crudi buried in jalapeño, a greasy helping of that nightmarish Quebecois specialty poutine (soggy fries and gravy, plus shreds of reheated duck confit), and three rock-hard crab croquettes rattling around in a little bowl. There are several ginned-up “classics” among the entrées (duck à l’orange with no hint of l’orange, an elfin-size steak Diane), plus a few unfortunate “seasonal” dishes, like scallops bizarrely garnished with pickled carrots and vanilla-parsnip purée. The burger (with melted Gruyère) isn’t horrible, and neither is the brioche pudding. But the best way to survive your ordeal at Hotel Griffou is to do what the weary boulevardier at my table did after pushing his dinner aside. Put your hand in the air, and call for another drink.