The Underground Gourmet can’t blame Jody Williams for refusing to call Gottino a wine bar. After all, New York is practically awash in wine bars these days. So instead, the Morandi chef has christened her pet project, the elegant slip of a West Village space she opened last month with partner Michael Bull, a “gastroteca—my made-up word for an Italian gastropub,” she says. And when, precisely, is a wine bar not a wine bar, according to Williams? When great food, great wine, and thoughtful service add up to something much more than a cookie-cutter marketing plan.
At first glance, the casual observer might not be able to tell the difference. Gottino embodies rusticity, with all the Old World Wine Bar signifiers in place: the long marble bar and the standing ledge behind it, the Ferrari-red Berkel meat slicer, the piles of seasonal fruit (quince, pomegranates, blood oranges) that are a telltale Williams touch. Wine bottles, cookie jars, and anchovy tins line the walls; baskets of complimentary nuts are arranged along the bar for customers to crack open at will. But beyond the romantic “’teca” atmosphere is a terrific “gastro” restaurant, one that adapts the familiar small-plate wine-bar format to its own Slow Food–inspired, seasonally dictated, often idiosyncratic ends. If there’s a wine-bar playbook, and there must be by now, Gottino isn’t going by it.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that you can’t pull up a thrift-shop bar stool and tuck into a nice plate of salumi or cheese. You can, and should—especially since the presentations are as delicious as they are artful, the cheese perfectly ripe and garnished with preserved cherries and pear, the selections under the salumi heading either house-made (like a Madeira-enriched chicken-liver pâté served in a mason jar) or thoughtfully chosen (Flying Pigs Farm’s pork-liver sausage), and including two (inter)national treasures: 24-month-old prosciutto di Parma, and eleven-month-old S. Wallace Edwards & Sons Virginia ham. In fact, despite the persuasive Italian veneer, Gottino celebrates local foods, from Brooklyn’s Royal Crown bread to Kunik cheese from upstate, but not in the usual overbearing way that makes you want to thwack a locavore over the head with a Long Island cheese pumpkin.
Chef de cuisine Meredith Sutton must be an intrepid Greenmarket prowler, however, even in this, the locavore’s cruelest season. Anyone can muster up stellar tomato bruschette in late summer, when sweet heirlooms flood farm stands, but it takes a bit of cunning to envision midwinter toppings like butternut squash and radicchio, or escarole and anchovies. The only good tomatoes to be had right now might be these dried Sicilian ones, which add a burst of sweetness to stracchino-cheese-slathered crostini sprinkled with capers.
If Gottino’s menu follows a typical small-plate format (snacks, crostini, vegetables, fish, meat), its choices don’t. There are olives, yes, but also bigné, the Italian answer to the savory beignet, mingled with bits of speck and rosemary and served warm. There’s also ciambottini, another Gottino coinage derived from the Italian word ciambotta, which means “big mix” and is usually a ratatouillelike stew. Here, it’s an addictively vinegary little bowl of marinated chunks of soppressata, pecorino, caper berries, peppers, and artichokes. At the moment, the verdure includes an earthy tangle of Brussels-sprout leaves with walnuts and shaved pecorino, and a smattering of bright blood-orange segments mixed with arugula and moistened with crème fraîche. But all is not sweetness and light at this gastroteca.
There are some heavy-duty gutbusters, too, albeit in miniature portions. Take the savory bread stuffing (pieducci e castagne), for instance. The only problem with stuffing as far as the Underground Gourmet is concerned is that, aside from Thanksgiving, it’s as hard to come by as pork buns at a bar mitzvah. After all, you can’t just saunter into any old boîte—whether it be a wine bar or a gastroteca—and say, “I’ll have the stuffing.” That you can do so at Gottino is a big plus in our book. It’s served here in a tiny, steaming crock mingled with pig’s feet and chestnuts, and it’s practically a spa snack compared with the canederli, hefty pork-chicken-and-veal meatballs of sorts only quasi-leavened by bread and prunes. Equally compelling are Bull’s pâté, a rustic bacon-wrapped slab made from partner Michael Bull’s mother’s recipe, the cotechino-stuffed Lady apples, and a glass jar of velvety olive-oil-whipped salt cod, served under a stack of toasted bread.
The plates aren’t the only small things at Gottino. The tables are, too—all five of them—and so are the water glasses, which are presented with a carafe of the triple-filtered tap water the place prefers to bottled. Gottino is Tuscan dialect for a small glass, but the wine is served in regular stemware, and is culled by knowledgeable Piedmontese wine director Caterina Berbotto from all over Italy. By-the-glass selections range from $8 to $18, including a crisp, refreshing Pinot Bianco and a floral Nosiola from Trentino, and Montepulciano produced (counterintuitively, it would seem) by recovering drug addicts at a vineyard-rehab program in Abruzzo. While not on the official list, that wine, and most of the less expensive choices, can be found on the chalkboard menu, which the U.G. always makes a point to consult.
Even as the amiable crew burns the midnight oil, there are plans in the near future to open for breakfast (coffee and cornetti, or Italian croissants) and an afternoon menu of retro salads like Waldorfs and Cobbs, so that one can partake of the newfangled Italo-American gastroteca experience whenever the urge strikes.