No Velvet Rope

BettePhoto: Carina Salvi

Queen of the night: That’s quite a title Vanity Fair bestowed on Amy Sacco, the Jersey girl behind Bungalow 8 and Lot 61. Such a coronation acknowledges that she now fills the stilettoed shoes of such former club “empressarios” as Dianne Brill and Suzanne Bartsch and inherits the same loyal subjects—overindulged rock stars, trend-mad fashion editors, costumed club kids, and anyone else who would rather drink, dance, and hang out than eat. So can you blame anyone who sets an alarm for anytime before noon for being nervous about what to expect at Sacco’s new restaurant, Bette? Can you fault them for fearing that their name isn’t going to be on “the list”?

461 W. 23rd St., nr. Tenth Ave.; 212-366-0404

60 Greenwich Ave., nr. Seventh Ave.; 212-924-8000

The thing is, Sacco has been in the food-and-beverage business since she was 13, first managing a café (“I was so tall no one bothered to ask my age”), then later working the front of the house at such high-profile restaurants as Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong before going out on her own. Bette (pronounced “Betty”) is named for her mom, Sacco says, because “with seven brothers and sisters, dinner always meant at least a table for ten, give or take a brother’s basketball team.” And as you watch Sacco make her way through the joint, greeting both instant regulars and first-timers with easy embraces, you’re likely to see her less as royalty and more as a big sister.

So who’ll be sitting next to you at this family gathering? Talk of Nicole Kidman sightings notwithstanding, this isn’t the mecca for actors, teen models, and Diddy clones you might have expected. This crowd is quieter and more mature than that—they wear a lot more Scoop than Patricia Field. Sacco lives directly above the place, in London Terrace Towers, so she’s determined to make it feel more like a neighborhood restaurant than a white-hot scenesters’ hangout. While it’s naïve to assume anything Sacco does can stay local, she has established an all–Zip Codes–welcome comfort zone. People aren’t table-hopping and chatting with one another as if the rest of the crowd doesn’t exist, so newcomers are less likely to feel like strangers at the party.

It helps that Bette’s décor is more cozy-chic living room than cool VIP section. Softly lit by translucent glass walls framing the bar and four tubular Deco chandeliers (worth plotting a break-in for), the creamy taupe-and-umber color scheme radiates comfort and warmth. In an inspired acoustical stroke, a serene leaf-patterned carpet covers the ceiling, and a mod Supergraphic rug hangs on one wall. You still can’t speak in a hush, but you won’t be auditioning for Scream 4 either.

As in many neighborhood haunts, the menu won’t dazzle you with innovation, but Sacco has hired Jean Georges alum Tom Dimarzo, so the fare falls into the category you could call “McNallyesque.” Like the food at Pastis or Balthazar, it’s sometimes spirited, generally good, and always serviceable. Crispy chicken-liver dumplings are a gratifying twist for anyone missing their Jewish grandma’s kreplach. Sweet Parma ham is braced by watermelon, and though sturgeon caviar, baked potatoes, and crème fraîche is hardly the most original of ideas, it’s no less sinfully appealing as a result. There’s a keen crunch to a green-bean, fennel, and black-radish salad in truffle dressing. Unfussy Bibb lettuce is nicely paired with an unfussy herb dressing. Endive, watercress, and anchovies receive a spark from a lemon-honey vinaigrette. There’s a trio of flavorful pastas: Gorgonzola ravioli with the savory bitterness of radicchio, a vibrant lobster ravioli, and tonnarelli with a smooth combination of caviar and smoked salmon. But when the kitchen gets slammed, and it can happen as quickly as Beyoncé changes outfits, the young staff can get careless. You’ll know trouble is coming when the handsome, often charming, but not highly seasoned servers lose their smiles.

Luckily, the entrées appear less vulnerable to pressure. Scottish salmon’s zing is gently enhanced by a lemon vinaigrette. Grilled chicken is moist and soothed by the aroma of thyme. Skin atop meaty layers of grilled black bass crackles with a zesty coating of nori salt. All the savory, bright-pink roasted rack of lamb needs is a mere whiff of mint. Short ribs are generally the heartiest choice, and they’re good (unless you’re served a fatty cut). Strip steak is more consistent, and it comes with almost-criminal truffled fries.

It took the pastry chef five tries, but after discarding fillings like lemon sorbet and chocolate ice cream, her baked Alaska with strawberry gelato is a keeper. It’s easy to get sweet over the sour Morello-cherry potpie, and the Valrhona-chocolate pudding prompted a friend to ask Sacco whether it could be ordered by the bowlful. The queen admitted that she often licks the mixing bowl. When she was told that’s not very regal behavior, she replied, “Honey, I’m a working girl.” At Bette, she works it so well.

Though it’s also a neighborhood place, Gusto is the rare local spot worth a visit just for the food. Adhering to the kind of up-front, simply layered, freshness-beats-all approach that makes Italian the most appealing summer fare, Gusto’s menu is stocked with items like panzanella (bread salad), grilled focaccia with fig and prosciutto, squash blossoms filled with mozzarella and ricotta, and seppioline (marinated cuttlefish with chiles and crushed olives) that won’t weigh you down in the middle of August. Even earthier items like tripe get a lift from a crackling Parmesan crust. Ravioli uncharacteristically wraps artichokes, ricotta, and thyme. A spirited pasta con le sarde practically fizzes with the refreshing trio of sardines, pine nuts, and raisins. Surprisingly, what may cause your enthusiasm for Gusto to wilt is its sparkling but unnavigable design, which keeps the staff from establishing any flow. It’s not their fault, but sometimes it makes you want to scream. Maybe they should carpet the ceiling.

Address: 461 W. 23rd St., nr. Tenth Ave.; 212-366-0404
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11:30 P.M.
Appetizers, $10 to $27; entrées, $18 to $33.
Ideal Meal: Crispy chicken-liver dumplings, pan-roasted Scottish salmon, Valrhona-chocolate pudding.
Note: It may seem like Siberia, but the elevated back room is the quietest, most pleasant place to eat.

Address: 60 Greenwich Ave., nr. Seventh Ave.; 212-924-8000
Hours: Lunch, noon to 3 P.M. every day. Dinner, Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 11 P.M.; Saturday, 5:30 P.M. to midnight; Sunday, 5 to 10 P.M.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $18; entrées, $14 to $36.
Ideal Meal: Squash blossoms filled with mozzarella and ricotta, pasta con le sarde, roasted peaches in amaretto.
Note: While the temperature is still hot, enjoy your meal with a sparkling Lambrusco from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

No Velvet Rope