At last, a return to proper eating,” declared the Weary Omnivore at my table, as we sat down to dinner at A Voce Columbus, which opened not long ago in that extravagant midtown food court known as the Time Warner Center. I’d been dragging the Weary Omnivore all over town recently on my increasingly grim gastronomic rounds. He’d covered his ears in clamorous basement speakeasies, wandered the empty streets of Bushwick in search of the perfect pizza crust, and nibbled pieces of overhyped fried chicken in countless obsessively underdecorated rooms. But here, overlooking Columbus Circle, there was a tentative, ineffable sense of order being restored. The room was elegant without being showy, and intimate without feeling too small. The menu was moderately priced (only two entrées over $30), but filled with interesting-sounding things to eat. “I don’t see any cheeseburgers,” whispered the Weary Omnivore, as he scanned the document in quiet amazement.
A Voce Columbus is a spinoff of the original A Voce near Madison Square Park. The chef at that restaurant was the acclaimed Andrew Carmellini, who left after a conflict with the owner and is now running the kitchen (to still more acclaim) at Locanda Verde. Carmellini was replaced last year by a young pasta wizard named Missy Robbins (her Chicago restaurant, Spiaggia, was an Obama favorite), who made changes to the menu but never entirely escaped her predecessor’s shadow. That’s all over now. The space on the third floor of the Time Warner Center (formerly occupied by Gray Kunz’s Café Gray) is a conscious showroom, replete with a runway-style walkway, an elevated bar in the front, and a glassed-off state-of-the-art kitchen. Kunz had his tables, perversely, in the back of the room, but now they line the windows, which means you can twirl your spaghetti while admiring the lights twinkling up and down the avenues and the treetops fringing Central Park.
But the real revelation at the new A Voce is the cooking. Robbins retains the structure (and even the typesetting) of Carmellini’s original menu, but in this grand new setting she makes it uniquely her own. Like Mario Batali, Michael White, and the other masters of this comfort-obsessed rustico era, she has a knack for taking simple Italian basics and elevating them to a different plane. The first salvo of dishes that arrived from the kitchen included a block of house-cured baccalà, which was barely salty at all and so soft it came apart in a delicate little soup of pine nuts and olives when you touched it with your fork. It was followed by golden, moon-shaped fritters called cassoncini, stuffed with steamy deposits of crescenza cheese and Swiss chard; a ruby-red square of carne cruda (scattered with walnuts, lemons, and Pecorino); and a delicious, chewy, crispy, gourmet version of pork belly, which Robbins cuts with balsamic vinegar and decorates with crushed pistachios and discs of freshly cut figs.
The pastas weren’t quite as successful by comparison, which was a surprise given Robbins’s outsize reputation. There was a clunky thickness to the housemade spaghetti on the nights I visited, which caused my finicky suburban friend, Mr. Westchester, to (rightly) compare his $25 helping of sea-urchin-rich spaghetti alla chitarra to a bowl of “Italian lo mein.” The assembled tasters were kinder to the torn stracci “pasta rags” (tossed with tomatoes, basil, and toasted garlic), and the wide ribbons of pappardelle folded in and around an almost overly rich farmhouse ragù made with porcini mushrooms and shreds of braised rabbit. My personal favorites were the tiny, featherlight gnocchi (made with ricotta and enlivened with bottarga and mint), and the mezzaluna ravioli, which Robbins fills with Taleggio and splashes with frizzled sage, cubes of butternut squash, and luxurious amounts of brown butter.
In an era when Italian chefs routinely stuff their menus with extraneous dishes, Chinese-restaurant style, entrées can have a numbing effect. But this is where Robbins demonstrates her talent for taking the usual shopworn recipes and standing them on their head. That old Tuscan warhorse chicken al mattone is spiced inventively here with chiles and set on a bed of gravy-soaked bitter greens and sliced Yukon Gold potatoes. The perfectly charred lamb chops are paired with tangy Umbrian lentils tossed with lamb sausage, and my excellent boned rabbit was stuffed with more sausage, cut in delicate wheels, and plated between puréed potatoes and a layer of gently caramelized fennel. Then there’s the fillet of branzino, which Robbins spreads with a tangy pesto made with crushed capers and hints of citrus, and places over a soupy, faintly sweet stew of heirloom tomatoes. The Weary Omnivore took one bite of this deceptively elegant dish, then another. “That’s actually pretty damn good,” he said.
Late on crowded evenings, A Voce Columbus can turn into a cacophonous happy-hour destination for the legions of business burghers and upscale mall rats in the neighborhood. If you wish to dine in relative tranquillity, go at lunchtime, or for the weekend brunch, which features scrambled eggs folded with mascarpone, and an earthy, barnyard version of spaghetti carbonara made with the giant yolk of a single soft-boiled duck egg and spiced with strips of crisped guanciale. The desserts (served day and night) include a silky bread pudding flavored, for the fall, with pumpkins, a bracing chocolate crostata (spiked with espresso and crunchy cocoa nibs), and a smooth panna cotta dappled with raspberries. Best of all, though, are the fluffy, fresh-made bomboloni alla Toscana. The little fritters are rolled in sugar, injected with vanilla custard, and served with a dipping bowl of melted Italian chocolate that raises this hackneyed old comfort-food dish perilously close to the level of art.