We seem to have entered another carnival age for New York restaurants, a time of theatrical themes (Buddakan); grandiose, upmarket menus (Gilt, Country); and spangled, multi-million-dollar venues (Morimoto, Del Posto). Against this frenzied backdrop, A Voce, which opened recently on the ground floor of an office building off Madison Square Park in the Flatiron district, feels as quaint and reserved as dinner at your father’s favorite cutting-edge restaurant circa 1962. The chef, Andrew Carmellini, didn’t make his reputation excavating piles of sea urchin on the set of Iron Chef or peddling glossy cookbooks on the Today show. He made it the old-fashioned way, by serving as the right-hand man to one of the city’s great chefs, Daniel Boulud, in one of the city’s venerable, uptown restaurants, Café Boulud. The menu at A Voce isn’t Pan-Asian or High French or the now-ubiquitous New American. It’s classically modern Italian, replete with a mix of fashionable rusticated dishes (tripe, lamb shanks) and old chestnuts like chicken cacciatora, veal chops, even the chef’s grandmother’s recipe for ravioli.
To someone whose job it is to explore the increasingly bizarre, Oz-like world of Manhattan restaurants, the first reaction, upon sitting down to dinner at A Voce, is relief. Everything about the place is carefully calibrated to convey a sense of soothing, almost soporific familiarity, including the décor, which is a study in retro Four Seasons–style modernity. The room’s color scheme is a subdued mix of earthy browns (the walls) and mossy greens (the tabletops), both of which contrast nicely with the sleek, modernist windows, which are cathedral-size and afford a tall view of the streetscape outside. Other random totems of the classic modern style are scattered around the restaurant, most notably swiveling leather Eames chairs, which are at every table and make you feel like you’re waiting for dinner in the executive cafeteria of, say, the Palmolive corporation, or in the somewhat enlarged interior of an elderly though prosperous uptown psychiatrist’s office.
The menu is similarly comforting, calculated, and familiar. There are appetizer and pasta sections, a market section filled with changing daily specials inspired by the whims of the season, and a raft of dressed-up farmhouse entrées, many of them conveyed to the table in terra-cotta pots. Among the appetizers, there’s a nice vegetable antipasto (soft wedges of mozzarella, very good eggplant caponata, slices of artichoke with pesto and pine nuts), professionally grilled octopus (good but meagerly portioned, with bits of peppers and chorizo), and your basic shavings of prosciutto draped over a butcher block. For something a little more experimental, try the salmon marinato (cured salmon laid, sushi style, over tiny mounds of pickled vegetables) or the carne cruda, an elegant reformulation of steak tartare made with chopped walnuts and celery and a dab of truffle sauce on the side. Most interesting of all are the duck meatballs, which are mixed with foie gras and pork shoulder, spooned with a rich cherry sauce, and served on a bed of puréed celery.
But grand Boulud-style flourishes like foie gras and cherry sauce don’t show up very often during the course of a meal at A Voce. Carmellini’s grandma’s ravioli is filled with a mix of pork, beef, and veal, piled with a chunky tomato sauce, laced with Parmesan, and served in a simple white bowl. Two pasta snobs of my acquaintance gave thumbs-up on two separate evenings to the pappardelle, which is folded with a vaguely minty lamb Bolognese and crowned with a single scoop of ricotta. The lumpy lamb tortellini (finished with an oily mix of escarole and oven-dried tomatoes) wasn’t quite as good, and neither were the rigatoni (blandly nourishing, with ceci beans and pork meatballs) or the inevitable dish of potato gnocchi, which melts in the mouth in the appropriate way but doesn’t quite cohere with spring peas and nuggets of prosciutto. The best pasta of all, I thought, was a simple bowl of spaghetti stirred together with ramps from the Greenmarket, salty bits of speck, and a rich Parmesan-and-cream sauce, which gets richer and creamier as you get to the bottom of the bowl.
Like lots of the really good stuff at A Voce, the spaghetti and ramps were on the market menu. So was the squab (crisp-roasted, sliced, and placed on a crostini loaded with diced mushrooms mingled in a rich foie gras sauce), an excellent pork chop smothered in a mass of wine-drenched onions, and a fillet of black sea bass, which came to the table in a delicious clam broth bobbing with snap peas, herbs, and a platoon of buttery croutons. The regular items tended to be a little more mundane. They included the chicken cacciatora (tasty, if strangely sweet) and the braised lamb shank (served like the chicken in a brand-new terra-cotta pot), which was a decent rendition of that increasingly common dish. The duck aficionados at my table thought the duck was very nice (it’s glazed with fennel and honey), but the scallops (in an indistinct almond sauce) tasted more or less the way scallops always taste, and my grilled-tuna entrée was tender and fresh enough but served with a listless combination of sweet oranges, broccoli rabe, and parsnip purée.
Unless, perhaps, you’re a devout Daniel Boulud fan, it’s difficult to be disappointed with any of this food. But since Carmellini is a chef capable of all sorts of culinary pyrotechnics, it’s hard to get too excited, either. A Voce is a place where all the rough edges have been conspicuously smoothed away, where the tone emanating from the kitchen isn’t hard rock (Batali) or haute classical (Boulud) but low-wattage easy-listening jazz. Not surprisingly, the desserts are a mix of trendy Italian comfort items (glorified custard-stuffed doughnut holes called “bomboloni” folded in a linen napkin) and ancient favorites like panna cotta and tirami su updated in a slightly strained, postmodern way. The panna cotta was chocolate-flavored and covered with sweet cherries; the tirami su was rich and boozy and served in a big snifterlike glass, with thin shavings of chocolate on top. If I lived or worked within fifteen blocks of A Voce, I’d be ordering them every day. But there are plenty of accomplished Italian restaurants in the big city, and if I wasn’t in the neighborhood, I might not make the trip.
41 Madison Ave., nr. 26th St.;212-545-8555
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Brunch, Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $18. Pastas, $17 to $21. Entrées, $19 to $29.
Ideal Meal: Vegetable antipasto, duck meatballs, homemade pappardelle, meat ravioli, sea bass in Ligurian clam broth (special), chocolate panna cotta.
Note: In a city awash in forgettable side dishes, Carmellini’s rustic potatoes (wedges of crunchy fried potatoes bombed with frizzled garlic) are exceptional.
Scratchpad: Carmellini can probably do better, but within the palatable, eminently safe formula he’s chosen, he does fine.