Olive Garden would kill for a scene like this: At one table, a dozen old Italians gesture wildly while sipping grappa postmeal. The bar is sardined with lanky, slick-haired fellows in expensive jeans and Italian sneakers. The jolly pizza chef, aptly named “Gino,” spins around from stoking the wood in a massive hearth; he shouts something in Italian to a nearby table of men who look plucked right out of a cobblestoned piazza. We later learn that one of those men is Gino’s uncle, and what we overheard was a nephew’s promise that giant prawns were on their way. We inquired about getting some for ourselves, but apparently the special order was for family only. At Macello, the Meatpacking District’s latest eatery, nearly everybody is family.
Or at least it seems that way. Macello’s head chef and partner Giovanni DeNigris is from Puglia, Italy’s most southeastern region, and he’s brought in Gino and a handful of others direct from Puglia’s town of Bari. There’s no telling if the early crowds are well-wishers and family members who will eventually return to the Boot, but so far they’ve done a bang-up job at making the massive, brick-lined, converted warehouse seem straight out of their motherland.
But you have to wonder if they consider the food the real deal they’d be eating back home. DeNigris makes no bones about showing off imported goods in the deli case that gleams from the restaurant’s entryway, a holding area set up like a butcher shop, lined with shiny white tiles and separated from the dining room by clear plastic-strip doors. But when those salumi and cheeses make their way onto the antipasti platter with jarred roasted red pepper and a few olives, they’re a bit lackluster. Ditto for the romaine salad: eight lettuce leaves spritzed with lemon juice and flanked by a halved cherry tomato. Sure, some of the best Italian food is simplicity at its best, but the ingredients have to be flawless to pull it off.
Pizzas fare much better than starters. And that’s not just thanks to the romanticism of watching Dino slam his thick palms into the dough, before gently spooning tomato sauce from the center to the edges, laying down rounds of fresh cheese and then sliding the pizza into the hazy flames. The show is part of it, of course, but the result is one of the better pizzas in town. Particularly the Barese, a holy trinity of silky prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and burrata (think creamy mozz). The prosciutto stays perfectly moist since it’s added after the pie is pulled from the oven and just before a last-second drizzle of bright olive oil.
The wood-burning oven that kicks out the stellar pizzas also accounts for some of the better entrées at Macello. (Pastas are fine, but not outstanding, so skip them for better options.) Lamb chops are cut three-fingers thick so that the flame-licked edges are crunchy, the center a juicy crimson. The well-marbled, bone-in rib eye is just as expertly cooked, and likewise gets only a dash of salt and pepper, letting the roasted meat flavor shine. Portions are hefty—fish specials are available as whole only—but if you manage to save room, the silky panna cotta is a good way to go out. The same can’t be said for the surprisingly dreadful coffee and espresso, something you’d assume would be top-notch coming from the country that produced Illy. I looked over at a table of Italians to gage their thoughts on the flaccid finale, but apparently they knew better: The tabletop was littered with tiny glasses of grappa and limoncello, with not an espresso cup in sight.