October 21, 2013
Normally, a new restaurant opens and all the food critics rush down to pass judgment, a practice that hardly seems fair. The best restaurants grow with time, like sports teams. They need time to improve, make half time adjustments, work out the kinks with personnel and procedures. In a climate where most restaurants fail or lose their luster within the first year, this is a necessary evil. However, those restaurants that manage to stick around, having had time to adjust for optimum service and survival, deserve a second look and can often pleasantly exceed the lofty accolades it may have received since its inception.
On a balmy late September Monday evening, my party and I showed up an hour early for our 10 pm reservation hoping to dine a bit earlier, and were seated quite promptly. I prefer 10 pm to 8:30pm, sdt (standard dining time/amateur hour) because the rush is basically over, and as a diner I feel I receive more courteous attention. The kitchen does not hurry its execution, and the late night lingering affords the opportunity to foster friendships with the exhausted staff. Having dined at Il Buco Alimentari several times over the past year, this was the most revelatory visit, and also my favorite.
I will confess that I have waited to review Il Buco A. partly due to the three star NYT review Pete Wells awarded this hard working well oiled machine on Great Jones Street. By comparison to other three star restaurants, Il Buco A. did not compute.
I do understand his three star rating. If one was to compare three star ratings for the type of restaurant Il Buco A. strives to be, than by comparison the restaurant could even garner four stars. Just think of all the restos that are similar in cuisine, price point, food, wine, service, and atmosphere and it is easy to make a case that this is a three star joint. But compare it to Le Bernardin? That’s when the star system becomes less useful and ineffective.
As a person in the industry, I always make an attempt to befriend every one in the restaurant, from chef, bartender, sommelier, hostess, owner, all the way to busboy and dishwasher. I understand how integral all the staff’s roles are to run a restaurant. When I dine out, I am fascinated at how it all works from organization to staff synergy.
That admitted, I am always treated well at Il Buco A. But as I observe the dining room, I notice similar treatment to other patrons, and that is not only a very good sign, but very good policy.
Back to why I may ultimately agree with that three star review.
Il Buco A. is an enormous space long and multi-faceted with a second floor diminished of the bric-a-brac of the ground floor’s energy. Because bread and salume is made in house, there are counters to have coffee, dessert, purchase cheese and pastas etc. This is not overwhelming like in Eataly. It is kept neat and orderly and enticing. It is also the portal to the back of the house and upstairs where the restaurant scene is humming. Score a comfortable booth, and you may find yourself lingering over some amaro gazing up at the sky light revealing a few bright stars or sliver of the moon. Sit at the bar and enjoy casual dining, or sit at one of the communal tables which somehow maintain their sense of spacing and privacy. Oh and the kitchen, headed by Justin Smilie, is not too far off towards the rear, there to notice but not the focal point. The main idea is for you and your party to have a good time. And this is wholly accomplished every time I have been there.
Starting with the wine list, very carefully selected reds and white from fabulous producers that can be enjoyed for just a tad above the mid level price. Perhaps there should be a more extensice selection form the forty to fifty dollar range, but for the quality of the 2010 Guccione Catarrato Bianco the sommelier suggested, $62.00 is a steal. Then relax the shoulders and order all the house made salume, all of which is bright and packed with deep porky good flavors, finocchia tender and bright, luscious pink ribbons of prosciutyo and even jamon iberico de bellota is an option, a sign that even this exclusively Italian eatery recognizes the greatness of the Spanish pig and its place in the hierarchy of cured meats.
Culatello, salame rosso, capacolo, guanciale and lardo are all excellent choices Order big or fights will ensue.
There is a surcharge for crusty bread and fragrant olive oil, but the quality warrants no apology. You will soon notice no lengthy interruption by the waitstaff, just seamless serving and time for enjoyment with your party. One or two specials are recited and then some hard choices have to be made. Just how many small plates should be ordered for sharing. Order them all. The small plates are larger than imagined, and a table of four will get a taste or two of every dish.
Begin with crispy artichokes alla romana with preserved lemon, a classic Italo-Jewish dish that brought me back to the old school famous Giggetto resto in the Roman Jewish Quarter. The crudo and carpaccios are delicate and refreshing, fluke or yellowtail with citrus notes, or the flavor packed razor clams bolstered by chilies. During the summer heat waves, the fresh ricotta cools while fishing for the slippery white anchovies and Persian cucumbers.
There is pulpo a la plancha, with black garlic and heirloom squash, and although always seared perfectly, can suffer from a tiny amount of toughness on occasion.
The Virginia quail can be sopped up with purslane and yogurt and more welcome chillies. It is a veritable poultry fix, save for the amount; there just isn’t enough on the plate for more than one person.
To say that the pastas are all well composed is to discredit how difficult it is for Chef Smilie to put out a consistent product for that amount of covers each and every packed night.
The first time I ate the spaghetti bottarga di muggine, a simple pasta anchored by the sea quality of sublime fish eggs and well balanced creamy consistency. Pair it with almost any white wine on the list. There is gnocchi, pillowy and augmented by earthy mushrooms, agnolotti filled with spinach, vegeterian delights.
Spaghetti nero is a mainstay, wonderful southern rendition with salt cod, fennel and bread crumbs. Busiate, a complimentary combo of almonds, anchovies and capers, right out of an Inspector Montalbano novella. Standing among these successful interpretations are classics like bucatini cacio y pepe and orecchiette with sausage, benchmarks for any Italian menu and chef.
As for secondi, the porchetta hits on all cylinders. I am transported to the plaza near the pantheon where the deli man slices crispy porchetta hanging from the storefront window. This porchetta is also offered in sandwich form during the lunch hours, as well as other great sandwich combos like salame toscano and capra sarda or cloth bound cheddar with carmelized onions.
The salt-baked whole branzino is moist, but I always find with market fish not a great value due to its small portion size.
There are slow roasted short ribs, of falling off the bone variety, and a poussin which I wish were just a whole roasted chicken, again harkening back to portion size. Augment your selection with contorni like crispy polenta and kale with anchovies.
If there is still room, the panna cotta is correct, but the gelati is more admirable, with a tasting of three flavors rich and crowd pleasing.
Still not ready to leave, especially due to the lovely amari selection. Aside from the standard Averna or Fernet Branca, branch out for Segesta or Varnelli, and you will be rewarded.
Because it was a Monday, Chef Smilie wasn’t at the helm, a much deserved day off, and some of the dishes that I ordered were a bit off. Pulpo a bit tough, bottarga muggine not as creamy, bucatini cacio y pepe a bit dry. I noticed the slight drop, and rather than knock the chef at present, I chalk it up to the learning curve for that crew. The evening was pristine, the service superlative from the top down, and many other dishes were spot on. The fact that we had a great time and enjoyed our meal is a testament to why Il Buco deserves three stars. We left feeling happy and satisfied, and for a restaurant to achieve its goal on an “off night,” that should be a clear indication of its virtue.
PPP (Price per Person): $$$