Surprise! I'm in New York for work. I flew out yesterday on a direct flight to Newark. The thing took off over an hour late, and because I had a crappy seat in the ass-end of the plane, the overheads were completely full by the time I was permitted to board, so I had to check my one wee bag that I had so lovingly and efficiently packed to prevent doing exactly that. Grumble.
I had hoped to make a stealth attack on Babbo last night and score a seat at the bar, but knew from a friend's recent experience that after 7 pm odds dwindle dramatically. I popped my head in shortly before 8, and it didn't take long to figure out that it just wasn't going to happen. No sign of a host, and the bar was packed two deep. Next time.
Luckily, I had a backup plan. Scarcely two blocks away is another installment of the Batali culinary empire, Otto Enoteca Pizzeria. Where Babbo is understated, Otto is boisterous. The bar is at least as much the point as the restaurant itself. If you're waiting for a table, you're given a beautifully printed slip with the name of an Italian city on it. Behind the host station is one of those European train schedules with the tiles that clatter as the names of cities -- and by extension tables -- come up: Vicenza, Ancona, Portenza... Between the host station and the bar itself are several standing counters where you can sip your sangiovese. The upshot of that is greater access to the bar proper, where you can order up. I was perched at the bar and perusing the menu within minutes.
I had read a few user reviews of the place and was a tad surprised to see a certain degree of tepidity in them. As with all user-generated content, though, you have to do a fair bit of reading between the lines. Anyone's dining experience is measured first and foremost against the expectations you bring to the table. Diners that were expecting the quiet sophistication of Babbo were doomed to disappointment. This is a pizzeria and wine bar. Those that rated the place well seemed to get that.
The place has a certain old-world charm, if somewhat obviously manufactured. The Carrera marble-topped bar fronts onto a warm carved-wood backbar lined with shelves full of glorious Italian boozes: A myriad of amari, many of which I had never heard of, and gorgeous grappe, shimmering like cylindrical diamonds. And wine. Lots of wine.
I started out with a classic insalata tricolore: zesty arugula with bitter Belgian endive and radicchio all just barely dressed with a light lemony vinaigrette. No huge culinary achievement, but solidly good and very refreshing. Batali is famous for his cured meats, and the menu has a brief carne section: Prosciutto, testa, pancetta, coppa and a generic salumi, which I ordered. This was one case where I was glad to have read the user reviews. My expectation upon ordering salumi would be to get a mixed platter of cured meats (which we did get, in fact, at another Batali outpost, Lupa, just last year). Instead, I got a plate of what appeared to be, in fact, salami. I knew from user reviews that the salumi was whatever they were dishing out at the moment, rather than a mixed plate. But had I not known ahead of time, I might have been put off, or even assumed a typo on the menu. Anyway, the salami was quite good, rich and hyperpeppery, the fat coating the inside of my mouth lusciously.
But it's a pizzeria, and I had to have pizza. Initially I was intrigued by a fennel and bottarga pizza bianca, until my eye caught the special of the day: Radicchio and guanciale. Did someone say hog jowls? I found the pizza very satisfying and extremely authentic. Again, this is where expectations can play foul with a diner's experience. If you came to Otto expecting a slab of New York 'za, you'd have another thing coming -- literally. This is classic Roman pizza, ultra-thin crispy crust, good char on the bottom and topped with a very light hand. If you got a mouthful of any one ingredient, the experience was lackluster; the guanciale was very salty, the radicchio bitter, the sauce a hint on the sweet side. But eaten altogether, they harmonized beautifully.
It was at this point that I was happy for my choice of wine, a Nero D'Avola. With the jaunty salad and peppery salami, it came off somewhat unsubtle, forward and brutish. You know, Sicilian. But against the deep and complex flavors of the pizza, it was like a nonna's welcoming arms. (Sidenote: Wines are served not by the glass but by the quartino -- 1/4 litre -- in a small carafe. Nice touch.)
I was sated, not least because I ate and drank for two. I had basically not eaten all day (I refuse to purchase those boxes of garbage on the plane), and had endured flight delays, baggage drama and a seatmate and her friend having conversations through me the entire way. But as I slipped the last piece of crust into my mouth and washed it down with that last sip of wine, listening to the takatakatakatak of the board over the buzz of happy wine drinkers, it was all worth it.
Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
1 Fifth St (entrance on E. 8th St)