Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews
I wanted to return and sample more of Chef Justin Smillie’s fare. A friend and I share the same birthday, so we decided to go for dinner and were happy we did. We received the royal treatment.
Following recommendations from New York Times, Foursquare, Immaculate Infatuation, and my own experience the prior year, I was completely thrilled with the dishes I ordered as were my friends. So were our neighbors at the table sitting next to us. Repeat diners they were ecstatic with their “to die for” Porchetta Alla Romana. The previous couples had scarfed down the “Spit-roasted Short Ribs” and left an large empty plate of the remains of the dish which was the main rib bone. Hmm. I was encouraged.
The decor is rustic and the atmosphere is relaxed. We sat in a section that was family style, conducive to speaking to your neighbor which is fun because I am nosy. I like viewing what others have ordered and if the group is friendly I will ask about their enjoyment of their various dishes. This homely, family style approach is what I think is the beauty of this restaurant which guys really love because it is not self-aggrandizing, nor pretentious. Indeed, it is an informal wine bar and restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In answer to those “foodies” (?) outraged that the New York Times gave it three stars because they thought it was like a sandwich shop (see the reference in Immaculate Infatuation), I would say that perhaps they are less flexible and more into their own pretension and conceptualization of “branding” than gorgeous tasting food. The idea of a market section up front where one can buy some of “the best salumi della casa in NYC, gelato, and other home made products beggars their idea of “three stars.” Well, I’ve gone to Michelin starred restaurants and the food was neither deliciously prepared nor were the elements combined well. So, it’s all in the perception and it brings to mind that with regard to restaurants, sometimes, the emperor is naked (The Emperor’s New Clothes) but no one wants to say it.
Back to our meal. First, came the basket of bread. If you adore crusty, substantial and sumptuous bread, Kamel Saci creates his bread’s magic from his own recipe and bakes it on the premises. Add Il Buco Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which is green, fresh and exceptional and you are home. My birthday buddy adores bread, so she was in heaven. If your taste doesn’t run to olive oil, and you’re a dairy fanatic, they will bring you delicious, fresh butter to spread on the fabulous bread.
We had appetizers and sides and then for some of us the Primi was the main meal and others, the Secondi.
Lattuga was just what I wanted: little gem lettuce, pickled onions, anchovies, tarragon, red radish. The combination of ingredients melded beautifully and seasoned with the unique taste of the tarragon. The lemon dressing was light and accentuated the freshness of the greens.
The Crispy Artichokes with lemon were wonderfully delicious. They were thin and curled by the char and dark browned to a perfect crunchiness. My friend who thought the gem lettuce was “romaine” which she hates, selected these as a veggie. There wasn’t a crumb left on her plate after we each had a little taste.
The Bucatini Cacio e Pepe is pasta setaro with fresh pecorino romano and black pepper. The pasta is all home made on the premises and was of course, perfectly al dente. My birthday buddy Andrea said it was really good, a compliment that one does not hear often dropped from her lips as she frequently orders pasta dishes and they are mostly, (silence), “OK,” or “good.” She is a pasta fan and gave Emily and Margaret a taste, but did not share the plate with Emily who was a bit disappointed as she loves pasta. But the pasta was Andrea’s main course. Do you blame her for not wanting to share it?
Polletto al Forno is poussin, roasted meyer lemon, capers and bread crumbs. Margaret thought this dish very good. Again, these are words I don’t normally hear, especially when they are said with the enthusiastic and emphatic pronouncement that Margaret made. Chef Smillie created the perfect combinations of ingredients and flavor textures and tastes with this dish. The beauty with all these dishes is that they are spot on, having achieved a regularity that is duplicated, without variation or unevenness.
The Slow-roasted or Spit-roasted Short Ribs are like that as well. These are the rave of city reviewers everywhere, whether for lunch in a sandwich or for dinner. OMG! I say amen to that. I do think they are amongst the best short ribs in the city and in a portion large enough to share with four. They were cooked to tender, flavorful moistness, complemented by the castelvetrano olives, celery, walnuts, horseradish and lemon which, squeezed on the meat, was a wonderful, unique addition. This is Chef Smillie’s creation of perfection. I had been waiting for a year and it was worth it. Absolutely marvelous.
To round out our luscious main courses we added Contorni.
The Crispy Polenta was amazing, crunchy with the salty, pungent taste of the parmesian on the outside and moist softness with milder notes of the corn/polenta on the inside. This was a delicious and wonderfully different way to morph polenta which I have found tiresome when it is served the usual way under the short ribs or meat. Same, same, enough already.
Carrots salsa verde. These had an incredible and luscious char which combined with their sweetness and hinted of other seasonings. They too offered a taste that was exceptional and interesting. The carrot plate was empty by the end of the meal and the pieces of polenta that were left, Margaret took home for her husband. They were devoured that evening.
Fingerling Potatoes valdeon we didn’t try. I wish we noted them because if they were anything like their brother contorni, they were probably wonderful and unique also.
Our shared dessert was home made seasonal Fruit Crostata and Vanilla Gelato, and Flourless Chocolate Cake and Gelato. Yum. The espresso and cappuccinos rounded off the dinner.
Il Buco Alimentari et Vineria is a NYC treasure. (See menu which is seasonal and changes.) And the beauty is you can go for breakfast, lunch or dinner. In fact the breakfast sandwich with 2 organic eggs, salame rosa, rupert cheese and focaccia fino is an incredible value. You will probably want to order a few Brioches for take away, since they go beyond originality in the flavor palette with the following varieties: “White Chocolate,” Chocolate Cherry, and Pistachio and Apricot Brioches. And then there are the Bombolone plain or filled with jam or dulce de leche. I don’t think it gets much better than this.
Last year I was introduced to Italy’s region of Umbria at La Scuola Grande, Eataly’s events restaurant. It was then I savored my first Sagrantino wine made only in the Montefalco region of Umbria and tasted the regional foods, legumes, mushrooms, pork that were and are often the traditional mainstay of Umbrian cuisine. This year Umbria is being featured once again at Eataly, NYC and to highlight the region, Steve McCurry, world-renowned photographer has created an exhibit of his photos. These will familiarize viewers with the lifestyle of the region, its towns, marketplaces, textile trades, terrain, the wineries, cuisine, artisan crafts, in short, all that is wonderful in this region, known as “the green heart of Italy.”
What impresses me about Umbria is the passion of those who are the leaders of the region who want to make sure that past connects with present-future. In other words, there is a great respect for ancient wine-making traditions, cuisines and crafts and the fervency to keep these traditions alive so they are transmitted abroad and actually sealed into perpetuity (that’s branding, folks). Part of keeping a record of what was and what will be is the “what is.” That’s where Steve McCurry comes in with his photographs. According to the President of Umbria, Catiuscia Marini, “The passion people have for the region of Umbria was captured perfectly by McCurry’s remarkable storytelling power.”
An iconic voice in contemporary photography for more than 30 years, McCurry is a good choice to pick out mythic images of the Umbrian landscape, its people, its appeal of every day life activities. McCurry has been recognized with some of the most prestigious awards in the industry and he has published a number of photography books, for example The Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage (2003), In the Shadow of Mountains (2007), and The Iconic Photographs (2011) to name a few examples.
McCurry selected various photographs that were used in the exhibit and can be seen at the Italian Trade Commission until Saturday, November 16th. McCurry’s photographs will also be on display at Eataly, during their month long celebration of the region of Umbria in the month of November. Eataly is holding classes focused on wines and traditional regional cuisine and is featuring Umbrian products, including wines and the Sagrantino only produced in Montefalco, Umbria.
Sensational Umbria is the title Steve McCurry has given to his project of 100 photographs. If you haven’t visited Umbria and don’t think you will have a chance in the next months, go to Eataly, NYC and take a peak at the exceptional photographs. Have a glass of Caprai wine with your pork or short ribs dish at Manzo Ristorante or Birreria. Peruse some of the Umbrian products seen here. You’ll be happy you got a chance to embrace Umbria in NYC and it will be an encouragement for you to eventually to visit that magnificent, less traveled and poetic region of Italy.
I had been to other restaurants on Great Jones Street in that well trafficked section of NoHo, namely Five Points, a restaurant my friend invested in. IL Buco Alimentari & Vineria was just up the block. I had read Pete Wells’ New York Times three star review of Il Buco. Pretty impressive as reviews go, one star away from the four stars which only six other NYC restaurants achieved over the years.
Wells had raved about the bread, “Remarkable stuff, with the gradually unfolding nuances of taste that are achieved only through a slow and patient fermentation of dough with wild yeast.” (Yes, wild yeast! I liked the place already.) He was pumped about the salumi board, “…satiny pink and white folds of lonza and capocollo…melting into a lasting impression…” These were “cured and aged in the basement of IL Buco Alimentari e Vineria,” and “among the finest salumi in the country.” I do enjoy a great salumi board. My taste buds have been cured over the years by exceptional sopressatas, lonzas and capocollo, “home mades” served by Nonna Gabriele (maternal grandmother) and cuigini on both sides of my family. I tucked Wells’ February 2012 review in the back of my mind for later use.
It came when I received an invitation. Roberto Paris and Il Buco were toasting Marco Caprai winemaker and proprietor of Arnaldo-Capri Winery on his “Best European Winery” Wine Star Award from Wine Enthusiast Magazine. My schedule was swamped. Could I squeeze in some time to stop by? I was intrigued about going to a cocktail hour in the “simple and convivial spot” that the food critic claimed, “tastes just like Italy.”
What edged me to RSVP “accept” was my experience of NYC’s “I Love Umbria Month.” During the month’s activities celebrating Umbria in various venues around Manhattan, I attended a kick-off press event at Eataly. I was introduced to Caprai wines and a few native Umbrian dishes prepared by Eataly’s Alex Pilas. The Arnaldo-Caprai Winery is from Umbria, the region known as “the green heart of Italy.” In Umbria classic regional fare includes pork, mushrooms and lentils or legumes. From my Eataly experience, I knew the Sagrantino wines from Arnaldo-Caprai, paired beautifully with these items; I had sampled dishes made with pork, lentils and mushrooms at the press luncheon. The Sagrantino di Montefalco, I remembered Caprai’s signature wine had a rich and powerful mouth feel which heightened the earthiness of mushrooms and lentils. It complimented and lightly cut through the moist and fattiness of the pork. Though the luncheon was before Wine Enthusiast awarded Arnaldo-Caprai with its Wine Star award, I really liked the wines I had tasted.
Truly, the award is well deserved. Arnaldo-Caprai Winery is an “acknowledged leader in the production of top quality Sagrantino di Montefalco,” a wine produced exclusively from Montefalco’s indigenous Sagrantino grape. Arnaldo-Caprai wines have been globally recognized for their quality and production excellence. Caprai’s diligence in helping to restore the Sagrantino grape to a glorious plateau is applauded in the wine trade, and the winery has won many awards. The Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s award was no anomaly. Caprai’s exceptional wines were really taking off and wine lovers were appreciating just how good these wines were. A neophyte wine connoisseur, I was rapidly becoming a fan of Caprai’s wines.
Another venue might hold a slap dash ho hum affair I could easily avoid. This was all too enticing. The range of Caprai wines, its white and reds, would be accompanied by SAVEUR Top 100 Chef Salvatore Denaro’s “Umbrian light bites”and IL Buco chef, Justin Smillie’s delicious appetizers. These chefs? Caprai’s wines? Even the little time I would be able to spend there promised to be an absolutely exceptional rendering. I couldn’t afford to miss it.
I climbed the stairs to IL Buco’s private room with happy anticipation.The crowd kept coming. I mingled in to where Roberto Paris was pouring. He suggested I start with the white, the 2011 Colli Martani Grechetto DOC Grecante. The wine is made from 100% Grechetto grapes. At my first sip there was the pop of crispness and vibrancy on my tongue, refreshing to the palette. A lovely aperitif (one may also have it with fish, veal and poultry) I enjoyed it with Chef Salvatore Denaro’s incredible Grilled Spring Onions Wrapped in Fresh Pancetta, then I moved on to the Umbrian lentil soup the chef was proudly stirring. It was perfectly seasoned to show off the earthy taste of the legumes with just enough cooking time for a savory, luscious texture. Servers were coming around with trays conceived/prepared by Justin Smillie, Crocchette di Baccala, crispy house salted cod, aioli, and there were skewers of Mushroom & Artichoke.Wine and these bites were in the fold.
Back to Roberto Paris for the first of the reds, the 2010 Montefalco Rosso DOC a combination of Sangiovese, Sagrantino and Merlot grapes, followed by the more powerful and full bodied Montefalco Sagrantino Collepiano DOCG with 100 % Sagrantino grapes. I enjoyed the Rosso with a taste of the Salumi della Casa, definitely home made and yum yum lovely. Though I was becoming full and didn’t sample them, it was apparent the Rosso was great with the imported cheeses, spreads, compotes, Taralli, olives and fabulous house made whole grain breads (to die for) from Chef Justin Smillie’s Alimentary Table. The plates came in chock full of salumi and treats, and left swept clean by guests; again and again the servers came and went. Our appetites expanded, the conversation grew louder and I would soon have to leave, but not before tasting the best of the best and assessing what I had experienced thus far.
I thought the Rosso good, but I prefered the 100% Sagrantino grape wines. The Collepiano DOCG was perfect with the Panini sandwiches made on that fabulous and earth shattering Il Buco bread. (I love rustic, chewy bread.) One panini was with tender and juicy Slow-Roasted Short Ribs, gorgonzola, onion and agrodolce. The other was Roast Porchetta, arugula, salsa verde. The Collepiano DOCG is recommended for a roasted meat with juice and fat and after tasting the short rib panini, I knew why: explosive ruby red piquant flavor that cut through any heaviness of the meat and melded with the gorgonzola, onion and agrodolce. I tried the porchetta with the Sagrantino Di Montefalco 25 Anni. Striking, strong but smooth and soft velvet with a nice finish. Was that a hint of blackberries for the nose? I understand better how the tannins in the Sagrantino compliment and slice their flavors through succulent roasted meats. But I could even see myself enjoying a glass with a really great imported cheese as well.
I looked around. Time to leave. Was it possible the invited devoured the pork faster than the short ribs paninis? These chefs knew the Caprai wines and had done their homework with the menu which was exceptional. As I waited for my coat, I glanced around. Rats! Guests were eating pasta and I was missing it. I asked a woman and her partner who were chatting and smiling as they plopped what looked to be rigatoni shaped wedges with a light cream colored coating in their mouths. “Delicious, pasta…with pumpkin,” the woman said pinging some lovely light orange-yellow veggie on her fork for me to view. An obvious innovation. I would call Il Buco tomorrow and ask for the specifics, since I was already running late. (I found out it was Chef Denaro’s own take on Amatriciana* the traditional Roman dish usually served with Bucatinni.)
I finished the last of my Sagrantino Di Montefalco and savored its multiplicity of flavors on my tongue, the last a distilled earthiness. I envisioned the Franciscan monks that had kept those sacred vines growing in their monastery of St. Leonard in Montefalco in 1700. I guess I was a bit addled, and could have used some pasta to help with the wine’s power.
I said my goodbyes and slipped away from the fading din of conversation and exclamations about the full body of the Sagrantino De Montefalco. I left as I came in, happy with anticipation. I looked forward to returning to IL Buco with friends and ordering their roasted pork with a glass of Sagrantino De Montefalco 25 Anni. But before I came back, I’d have to lose the 2 pounds I gained eating this fabulous food and enjoying the equally wonderful wines.
*The traditional preparation has tomatoes, guanciale and garlic BUT rather than tomatoes Chef Denaro used Hokaido pumpkin (a very delicate, perfumed pumpkin.)