Bravo, Bivio

Buon giorno: Bivio's warm, relaxed dining room.Photo: Kenneth Chen

Last week, a friend dining at my house suggested we make s’mores for dessert. I smiled faintly and made a berry cobbler. A few days before, someone else called alerting me to TV Land’s Carol Burnett Show marathon. I stayed tuned to While You Were Out. A third friend, having just snared comps to Fiddler, caterwauled into her cell phone, “Aren’t you just dying to see it again?” A blessing on Alfred Molina’s head, but I should sprint to the Minskoff because … I’m Jewish?

Sorry if I’m not big on nostalgia, but reminisce beyond a single sigh and I turn into Robert Moses facing protesters against the proposed Cross Bronx Expressway. Sure, there are places I remember (pause) in my life, though none remain: the Mudd Club, Vito Bruno’s outlaw parties, Egg magazine, John Duka’s weekly “column” in Bergdorf Goodman’s ads, Area, Dean Johnson’s Rock ’n’ Roll Fag Bar. I just don’t miss them. And since each was so right for its time, it’s doubtful that reviving any of them would rekindle their allure any more successfully than did the return of Studio 54, the Russian Tea Room, Jackie Mason, or Ebinger’s blackout cake.

And yet. There was one spot, on one particular night every week. The room was as spare as a new loft for rent. The menu featured consistently good, clean, well-prepared Italian food, if nothing to salivate over all week. And the crowd came fully loaded with an amalgam of energy, self-esteem, optimism, self-satisfaction, spirit—pick an adjective, long as it’s a good one—that reflected all the best reasons to live on this island. No wonder Barocco on Sunday nights was my favorite place to be in New York.

Wail over the loss of Lutèce’s onion tart and gentility till your crème fraîche sours, but Barocco’s closing was a kick in my happiness’s solar plexus. Danny Emerman, the owner, didn’t appear to take it nearly as hard. But then, he may be the most Caribbean-island-paced restaurateur I know. Besides, he had consolation by opening Barocco in Miami (now closed) and Bottino on Tenth. Unfortunately, none of them did it for me. And I missed being in that room.

Bivio’s kitchen has mastered the simple to read, eat, and afford Italian menu.

But hot damn, Emerman’s new Bivio does it! Emerman may be laid-back, but his Palm IV directory must shoot sparks. Much of Bivio’s crowd is younger than the Barocco set (is that how I used to sound?), but they buzz, laugh easily, and acknowledge those around them just enough to allow the energy to bounce from table to table. Don’t worry, nothing spills. The food doesn’t stay that long on the table.

Bivio’s kitchen, like Barocco’s, has mastered the simple to read, eat, and afford Italian menu, so it’s easy to put together an antipasto where marinated artichokes share their brine with a hunk of robiola and slices of a pungent duck prosciutto, and smokily braised fennel can hook up with sweet cipollini onion, the faint heat of bresaola, and the oddly persuasive perfume of Parmigiano.

Roast peppers and bocconcini, gratin of asparagus, frisée with pancetta, a salad of fennel, arugula, oranges—the appetizers are hardly surprises. What is remarkable is that they taste exactly as they should. Your taste buds get just what they came for.

Pastas are the menu’s strength, especially orecchiette with a brash coupling of broccoli rabe and boar sausage, pale yellow pearls of fregola studded with sweet hunks of rock shrimp in light wine and tomato sauce, and garganelli with a strangely sweet but seductive ragù of braised lamb. The menu begins to wind down with the entrées, though the herb-crusted rack of lamb and the make-a-big-mess zuppa di pesce are the best deals on the menu (if the kitchen could better control the pan-roasted organic chicken’s temperature, that duet would be a troika). Tagliata of tuna and steak are too mundane in such a buoyant room. More important, roasted branzino was Barocco’s signature dish; Bivio’s working on it.

Except for ice creams and sorbets, desserts are like they were at Barocco—nowhere, man. Well, the tirami su is pretty … oh, you can’t still like eating this glop. Then again, among such convivial surroundings, in such vivacious company, one might be up for eating just about anything. Except s’mores.

Bivio, 637 Hudson Street (212-206-0601). Dinner, 6 to 11 p.m. daily. Appetizers, $5 to $9. Entrées, $15 to $25. All major credit cards.

Bravo, Bivio