Advantages Delicious, authentic Italian food at reasonable prices
Disadvantages Pizzas often arrive before starters are finished
|Value for Money|
|Standard of Menu|
|Standard of Service|
For the past five months, I have been eating my way around New York City. In fact, I've been doing little other than living, breathing and dreaming food. This is not particularly surprising to anyone who knows me even remotely.I came here to attend culinary school and, as I see it, eating out and being served are simply part of my education. It's a way to learn about different cuisines, explore flavours, examine how food is being presented on the plate, and experience various styles of service. How's that for a clever way to justify what, in this city, can be a rather expensive hobby? New York has over 16,000 eateries, ranging from the most lavish and refined--like Japanese chef Masa Tamayaka's eponymously named establishment at Columbus Circle, where prix fixe sushi starts at $300 per person--to the most inconspicuous hole in the wall serving up mouth-watering falafel sandwiches for $3. All the big names are here: Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelsson, Alain Ducasse, David Bouley, Tom Colicchio, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, Mario Batali...and many more. Big name, celebrity chefs, often running multiple restaurants while publishing cookery books and memoirs, pushing a new line of cookware, even, in many cases, hosting their own television programmes on the Food Network. Given the busy lives these guys lead, you naturally have to wonder ...is the food really any good? To find out, I recruited a few culinary school pals to help in the research. We chose as our subject Mario Batali, who has devoted his career to the food of Italy, and headed to Otto Pizzeria & Enoteca.
Otto's interior calls to mind an Italian train station. Instead of being given a number to tell you when your table is ready, you are given a ticket with the name of an Italian city printed on it. When your city is displayed on the departure board, your table is ready. Otto only accepts reservations for parties of 6 or more, so if you're there on a busy night expect a wait. On our first visit, a Saturday evening, we were five people and waited about 30-40 minutes to be seated. By the end of the meal, we all agreed it had been worth the wait. Also, there's a spacious bar area where you can get a head start on tasting from Otto's enormous (500 bottle) wine list (by the glass: $8-$14; bottles start around $20). The restaurant's very approachable, down-to-earth sommelier will help you select a wine based on what you like and what you're willing to spend. (Given that this is solidly good, simple Italian fare, I can't imagine blowing $250 on a bottle of wine to accompany the meal. But, hey, this is New York. Just about anything goes here.) On another visit I asked the sommelier about one wine, which she admitted she hadn't yet tasted. However she had a good idea of what it would be like, so we decided to try it. When she brought the bottle over, I invited her to sample it as well and tell me what characteristics she tasted. (See, all very educational, isn't it?)Mr. Batali owns a number of well-regarded, rather expensive establishments around New York but Otto, with its focus on pizza, is moderately priced. Antipasti and appetizers start at $4, pizzas range from $7-$14 and desserts from $4.50-$8. Best of all, nothing disappoints. Start with an order of three, five or seven cheeses (forgoing the delectable Fontina d'Aosta and Parmigiano Reggiano in favour of the changing selection of cheeses from the specials list). Accompanying the plate is a trio of fantastic condiments, such as black truffle-studded clover honey, apricots cooked in white wine and mustard seed, or amarena cherries. Succulent Funghi Misti (mixed sauteed mushrooms) and tender, braised brussels sprouts in a slightly sweet Vin Cotto (a 'cooked wine' condiment) are delightful--as are the panelle, lightly fried chick pea cakes garnished with rosemary and fresh lemon juice. But sauteed radishes with bagna cauda (a traditional anchovy sauce) were nearly raw and the pungency of the anchovy proved overwhelming.
For the main course, choose from 18 different pizzas. The classic Margherita (tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil) reminds you of how few ingredients you really need to make something taste extraordinary. In fact, it is this approach which lies at the heart of Italian cooking. Unlike the complicated techniques and labor intensive procedures common to French or Indian cooking, Italian cuisine impresses the most when it employs the fewest ingredients. Mario Batali understands this, which is why no pizza on Otto's menu has more than four or five ingredients: balsamic onion and goat cheese; porcini mushrooms and taleggio cheese; potato, anchovy and ricotta; clams with chilies and garlic. The thin crisp crust is sparingly topped rather than overloaded with sauce and 'extras'. It tastes like Italy. And since eating here once (twice, three times...), I cannot eat pizza anywhere else in the city (though for the sake of my education, I will do so reluctantly.)To top off the wonderfully satisfying gastronomic experience that is Otto, it just so happens that the restaurant is considered to have the best gelato in New York. As someone who can trace her first food memory to ice cream, I embraced this finding with unabashed reverence. Again, the flavours remain true to the Italian standard of straight-forward simplicity--chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, hazelnut stracciatella--as opposed to overzealous abundance (no tutti frutti or rocky road here). But Otto's chefs clearly possess an awareness of the whimsical nature of dessert as well, most notably in a dish that pairs olive oil gelato with candied kumquats, pomegranate seeds and blood oranges, along with a sprinkle of coarse, delicate Maldon sea salt.
Adding to the overall pleasure of dining at Otto's is a team of servers that consistently demonstrate sound knowledge of the menu and ingredients while conducting themselves very professionally. Better coordination between the wait staff and the kitchen might end the tendency for main courses to arrive before starters have been finished, but this is only a minor glitch.
As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Batali and his partners Joe Bastianich and Mark Ladner (the man who really is in the kitchen on a daily basis while the other two build their empire) have earned their stars on the celebrity chef walk of fame.
Reservations only available for parties of 6 or more.Public Transportation: Subway lines A, C, E, B, D, F, Q to West 4th Street Station; 1 to Christopher Street Station; 6 to Astor Place; or N, R to Eighth Street.
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