Except for one errant uptown restaurant and a proliferating number of highly profitable burger stands, the parameters of Danny Meyer’s culinary Yoknapatawpha County are well known. Its physical borders run ten blocks or so around the epicenter of Danny Land, which is the Union Square Greenmarket and his original flagship establishment, the Union Square Cafe. Its interior terroir is, if anything, even more well defined. In a Danny Meyer restaurant, you will find a casual “tavern” area up front designed primarily for eating instead of drinking. Once at your table, you will be swarmed by platoons of solicitous, well-drilled waiters dressed in cheerfully colored cotton button-down shirts and a standard-issue Danny Land bistro apron. Your menu will be laced with sophistication in a comforting, user-friendly way, and no matter what kind of food you order (Indian at Tabla, haute cuisine at Eleven Madison Park, haute barnyard at Gramercy Tavern), dinner will proceed without a hitch, inside a cocoon humming with the proprietor’s almost ruthlessly efficient brand of hospitality.
Maialino is the name of Meyer’s latest restaurant, and although it’s advertised as a Roman trattoria (the name means “Little Pig”), you know you’re in Danny Land almost before you walk through the door. “Would you like a spoon with your tripe?” asked my waitress, who had a dazzling smile and looked less like an Italian offal aficionado than like an actress in a nineties sitcom. The long, angular space, off the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel, used to house a darkened, oppressively swanky Chinese joint, but Meyer has thrown the big bay windows open to the park (on which he lives) and imbued the space with his signature airbrushed charm. The bar area is fitted with a jumble of rusticated wooden tables and a menu filled with inviting finger foods like lardo-topped bruschetta, and a pizza “bianca” dusted with smoked pancetta. There is a bread station in the middle of the room, along with a salumi station where ribbons of “salame Toscana” are cut with loving care. In the back, the tables of the trattoria are set with blue-check tablecloths, like at a proper church picnic.
Meyer is a genius at empowering chefs to greatness within the parameters of his particular vision, and the cook he’s chosen to run his high-concept trattoria is Nick Anderer, who worked at Babbo during its heyday and, most recently, under Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern. Anderer is from Manhattan, not Lazio, but he has a ventriloquist’s knack for soaking up the spare, earthy vocabulary of casual Roman restaurant cooking and reproducing it, more or less exactly, on the plate. At least that was my impression as I spooned in bites of properly funky “trippa alla Trasteverina,” which the kitchen cuts in soft, fettuccine-size strips and garnishes with Pecorino and sprigs of mint. There’s pig’s trotter on the antipasti menu, which I thought bordered on the rubbery but which a Roman construction worker might enjoy. And there are faithful renditions of aged classics like frizzled artichoke hearts (with bowls of anchovy-spiked sauce), salty fried sweetbreads and cauliflower on butcher paper (“frittura Romana”), and a wispy, egg-filled bowl of stracciatella, which tastes like some ethereal Mediterranean version of egg-drop soup.
Romans don’t tend to smother their pastas in rich tomato and meat-based ragùs like their countrymen often do. They fold them with eggs or Pecorino and spice them with blizzards of crushed pepper and bits of smoked pork, and that’s what Anderer does here, to an almost fanatic degree. The eight pastas on the menu include an oversweet, slightly clunky version of the great Roman classic spaghetti carbonara, delicious tangles of gizzard-shaped tonnarelli folded with creamy Pecorino and black pepper (“cacio e pepe”), and chewy platters of paccheri pasta cut like sections of a bicycle inner tube, and tossed “alla Gricia,” with black pepper, more Pecorino, and crunchy bits of guanciale, that great central-Italian smoked-pork-jowl delicacy. Guanciale also figures prominently in the bucatini all’Amatriciana, which is beautifully balanced between spicy tomato brightness and oily richness. And if you’re in the mood for even more pork, order the “malfatti al Maialino,” made with a bed of eggy, hand-torn malfatti pasta and covered in a cream-based suckling-pig ragù.
Unlike many lavish new pasta palaces around town, the food at Maialino is served in small, Continental-size portions (no pasta or antipasti costs over $17) on little oval plates. Which means that by the time the “secondi” entrées rain down on the table, you might actually have room for a taste of golden, lightly crusted fritto misto, or a bite or two of crackly-skinned, vinegary-sweet “pollo alla diavola,” made with the breast of a plump, American barnyard bird. You might have more difficulty polishing off the nicely charred lamb chops (“scottadita d’abbocchio”), which come three to a plate, or the braised oxtails, which are the size of small cannonballs and stewed to a pleasing softness in a mass of tomatoes, carrots, and celery. The serious carnivores at my table were disappointed in the tough roast piglet ($72 for two or three people), so get the veal T-bone if you’re in the mood for a truly gut-busting trattoria feast, or the beautifully braised lamb shoulder, which is sweetened with cippolini onions and a splash of sparkling Frascati.
Maialino is the first hotel restaurant in the Meyer empire, and given the master’s eye for a market niche, it’s no surprise that the elevated, faux-trattoria model dovetails neatly with both the casual-dining ethos of recession-era New York and the practical demands of a big-time hotel. The dinner menu fits on one page, as does the carefully edited, multiregional Italian-wine list. The tediously classic desserts are the weakest link in the concept, but because they’re designed, as in a real trattoria, to be enjoyed without fuss while sipping your postprandial espresso, it doesn’t really matter. My tiramisu lacked the dense, boozy integrity of the real thing, and the gelati weren’t so different from the store-bought kind. The chocolate tartufo is the most decorative item on the list, but the most evocative is the ricotta sformato. This airy, flanlike substance is dripped with figs and honey and served in earthenware crockery. Close your eyes and you’re not in the polished confines of Danny Land anymore. You’re on the sunbaked streets of Trastevere itself.