Monday, July 7, 2008

Where Ambiance Means Everything

I was traveling on business in Nueva York on Thursday, and decided to stop in at Mario Batali's Lupa for lunch.

(insert LONG pause)

I wanted to like it. I REALLY did!!! (said in whiny voice)

A number of trustworthy people told me it's a restaurant-of-note so I strolled in off Thompson Street with high hopes.

A solo diner, with a boatload of anticipation in tow, I grabbed a seat at the bar and began studying the scene.

The restaurant's ambiance was comforting... big rustic farm-style tables, a welcoming staff, and warm lighting - all absolutely fitting for a true osteria.

When I requested some guidance the bartender happily coached me on the menu.

I was sad to see that the lunch tasting was only available to parties of 7 or more (must have missed that one online) but instead I ordered two antipasti - the Lingua and the Baccala with Potatoes - and a first course of pasta. I chose the Tagliatelle with Pork Shoulder which was the day's special (The dish my bartender "loved best").

I sat at the bar scribbling happily in my notepad, anxiously awaiting the meal to come.

My seat at the bar positioned me next to the server's station and I could overhear everything. I was delighted to hear that, instead of bitching about difficult customers, they playfully argued over their knowledge of grape varietals. When no one could answer a question they looked up the answer in their wine bible (possibly co-owner Bastianich's?) and rejoiced over the new found knowledge before hurrying back to tend to their tables.

My bartender presented me with bread-for-one. "Owww... yay!" I rubbed my hands together and ripped off a hunk of bread to dunk into the accompanying olive oil (bread to me is one of THE truest signs of a restaurant's worth if not the most true).

"Yum! Bread." I thought, still happy as a clam.

Then I took a second bite and thought "Hmmm... kind of dense... and kind of rich with oil."

I had wanted it to taste good so badly that I had tricked myself into thinking it did. Damn that second bite and the onslaught of reality... the reality that it just wasn't that good no matter how badly I wanted it to be. The rest of the meal followed suite.

The lingua and baccala came out together. Both were very good but... I don' t know... just good.

The tongue was served with raw onions. The dish was sweet, and acidic, and smooth. The baccala was flaky, just the right amount of salty, and was laced with capers so fresh they popped when you bit into them.

The pasta came out next. It was (very) lightly dressed in a red sauce and (in addition to the pork shoulder) came mixed with greens - radicchio and some type of green lettuce leaf.

The sauce was nothing noteworthy, the pork too scant, and the pasta itself not particularly toothsome. The addition of the salad greens was just plain weird.

The bill was $40 and with tip ended up close to $50 (no booze).

I can see why people would love this place. It really feels like you're in the belly of an Italian beast. You can almost trick yourself into thinking that might just be the taste of Nonna's sweat in my ravioli, or I think that IS Sophia Loren sitting next to me, or I really AM in Emilia-Romagna (you get the idea).

BUT, leaving that aside... The food - it just didn't do much of anything for me.

Next time I go to Lupa I will be sure to force my dining mates to speak in a faux Italian accents and focus the discussion primarily around "the old country".
My guess is my experience will be much more pleasant.

Lupa Osteria Romana - 170 Thompson Street between Houston St. and Bleecker St. New York, NY 10012
(212) 982-5089

No comments: