Sunday, February 05, 2006

Terminal Condition New York Entry #66

Does anyone eat at Otto twice? A friend and I visited Molto Mario Batali's pizzeria/enoteca last Friday night ans asked this question. Otto fashions itself an Italian train station, loud and crowded. Diners are called to table on an arrival board. By the time our entree arrived, I was ready to embark. All that was lacking was fumes.

Granted this was Friday evening but the acoustics touted sign language and aspirin. One party at a table near us were screaming at each other, not a domestic tiff, but the only way to converse. With each table howling we caught snatches of conversation throughout the room. We could everyone but each other. This dazed reality puts the lie to my opening query: crowds do find Otto energizing. But after visiting numerous establishments in which I was the grayest head in the room, youthful buzz is not necessarily a cause of complaint. But at Otto the chaos is contagious at the tables and perhaps in the kitchen.

Service was cheerful, and we appreciated the sommelier making wise suggestions for two carafes of wine. When the server brought anchovies in place of parsnips - a mistake anyone could make! - they quickly apologized, letting us keep the fish. We did feel pressure to turn the table, particularly from an overeager busboy, who felt that a clean table was more to be treasured than a clean plate.

The food, which some admire, was hit and miss. We began with Anchovies, Breadcrumbs and Scallions; Roasted Beets and Saba; and Parsnips "Agrodolce." A fine line exists between respecting the culinary sophistication of diners and organizational pomposity. Agrodolce and Saba (sweet-and-sour sauce and boiled white grape must, respectively) felt pretentious, especially in a restaurant aiming at a wide audience.

Best of the trio were the parsnips. Both the sweetness and the sourness revealed complexity of this often ignored root vegetable. It was the most completely satisfying selection of the evening, a creation that appeared simple but was built upon levels of taste. Our chunks of beets were inoffensive, and not deeply flavored. The anchovies were deliciously fresh, but this pesce was sabotaged by stale cubes of bread (by no means "crumbs," just crummy). And the bread brought to our table was far from hot and chewy. Bread is the canary in the mine of Italian kitchens. When the bread dies, call the coroner.

Our pizza was Fennel and Bottarga - tomato, fennel, bottarga (salted tuna roe), pecorino, and mozzarella. The thin crust was too dry, and the topping lacked pizzazz. I love fennel's bitter bite, but this tang was not much evident; neither was the salty bottarga. The topping was a thin gruel of cheese and tomato.

Our pasta, Linguine with Broccoli Rabe, Pine Nuts, and Garlic was unbalanced. The pesto was dominated by the taste of ground broccoli. The pasta was, as promised al dente (we were advised - warned - of this), but, as with the pizza, the flavor combinations were off.

Dessert was on the right track. Olive Oil Coppetta (a small cup, or Italian Sundae) was composed of olive oil gelato, tangerine sorbet, blood orange, dried cherries, capezzana olive oil, and Maldon sea salt. Batali deserves iron points for his spunk in advertising sea salt in a dessert, but his fortitude paid dividends. Dessert was the only moment in which one could see the chef's mind at work. Batali extended the range of dessert flavors beyond what might be considered decent. He begins from strength with his tangerine sorbet and, especially, the subtle and sublime olive oil gelato, and adds the contrasting tastes of olive oil, oranges, cherries, and salt. It is inspired. If every course could have been dessert, I would have accepted my malaise as the price of genius.

Otto is a cross between a roadhouse and madhouse, and not dazzling enough for its bedlam. Perhaps a quieter moment would have been more auspicious, but the craziness seems integral to the meaning of Otto. Its volcanic tumult is molten Mario. Otto, pronounced Oh-toe, might otherwise be whispered Uh-oh.

One Fifth Avenue (at 8th Street)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

1 comment:

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