Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
For anyone in love with the blockbuster pairing of pasta and wine—and honestly, who of us isn't?—New York City is the place to be right now. A bottle of red, a bottle of white...and, yes, we're in the mood for cavatelli and ragù tonight.
Back when I worked as the New York Times's bureau chief in Rome, I had a ritual. I would have Sunday dinner out, always confining my order to pasta and wine. It represented a calm, focused moment before the start of a hectic week. More than that, the meal was an opportunity to distill dining to its essence: something to stick to my ribs, and something to go to my head.
Fast-forward a dozen years. I now live in New York City but could follow my Roman regimen seven nights a week, thanks to an abundance of new places where celebrated chefs and restaurateurs focus on pasta and wine. I think of Lilia in Brooklyn and the chef Missy Robbins's riff on cacio e pepe using pink peppercorns in lieu of black. The subtly fizzy Lambrusco accompanying the dish had a mischievous effervescence that matched the pasta's mood. They were partners in irreverence.
Lilia opened amid a cluster of like-minded ventures including Pasquale Jones, Café Altro Paradiso and La Sirena, a large and buzzing addition to Mario Batali's empire. Despite the current mania for all things gluten-free, these places are signs of the times. Exorbitant New York rents and other factors are raising the cost of doing business; pastas, fairly cheap to make yet easy to sell for $20 or more, are an enticing way to respond.
"Your profit percentage is greater on pasta than on rib eyes," says wine pro Robert Bohr of Pasquale Jones. Pasta, he adds, is a draw for regulars, who are crucial in an economically unforgiving era. It also underscores the city's insatiable demand for comfort food.
Indeed, Thomas Carter of Cafe Altro Paradiso says that its relatively straightforward pastas, like busiate tossed with brussels sprout leaves, lemon and mint, are meant for diners who come in a few times a week. His wine list also emphasizes accessibility, like the Benanti Pietramarina white from Sicily. "A lot of us want simpler," Carter told me. "Quieter."
Lilia's pastas have so overshadowed all else that, Robbins says, "I get worried if a group doesn't order pasta. I'll ask the table, 'Are you sure?'" She didn't have to ask me. On my first visit, my companions and I eagerly sampled not just the pink peppercorn one, but also a few others, including ravioli filled with prosciutto, spinach, mascarpone and ricotta. Truth be told, I had several wines, too. I'm a minimalist, not a monk.
Here, excellent wine and pasta pairings from New York's top Italian restaurants.
Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic at the New York Times, is now one of its opinion columnists. His first cookbook, A Meatloaf in Every Oven, will be published in February.