Robert De Niro is no restaurant-biz neophyte. It’s true that Ago, the train-wreck trattoria he opened last year in Tribeca, was savaged by critics. But like a savvy restaurateur, instead of tweaking the place into the ground, the impresario-actor simply scuttled the project and started over from scratch.
Locanda Verde—its new blockbuster replacement—features a refurbished dining room that’s much more inviting than its predecessor, with wine-bottle-lined bookshelves, aluminum lamps, big baskets of fruit on the bar near the kitchen, and tables that are no longer so tight together that the waitstaff can’t help but topple your glasses. But the most dramatic change is in the kitchen.
De Niro tapped Andrew Carmellini, one of the city’s most talented (then) out-of-work chefs, to bring his food and considerable following down to Tribeca. Instead of Ago’s insipid spins on Italian standards, A Voce’s former top toque sends out dishes so gutsy, you’ll wipe your plate clean and wish for seconds.
Only the sneering reception at check-in may remind you of its amply hyped forerunner. The restaurant, more swamped on a recent visit than a Chelsea club on a Saturday night, employs a host as impassive as a velvet-rope bouncer. Once you make it inside, however, the ambience and service are incongruously warm. The food is so flat-out seductive—and reasonably priced—you understand quickly why so many diners are clamoring, like asylum-seekers escaping a war zone, up near the front door (the restaurant is undoubtedly this summer’s big hit).
Carmellini’s bold family-style fare—the dishes at dinner are all designed for sharing—is best enjoyed as part of a bacchanalian banquet. The feast might begin with a snack—a simple plank of sliced capocollo and hunks of sharp grana padano, listed on the menu in Tony Soprano--speak as “gabagoul & grana”—before moving on to heartier fare. A single thick, meaty octopus tentacle that’s been slow-cooked until tender, charred on the grill, and served with tangy romesco and a crisp green-bean salad won’t last long in the middle of the table. Nor, for that matter, will the chef’s seared-meatball sliders, ground pork and lamb topped like burgers with sliced tomato and pickle, on goat-cheese-slathered Parmesan-onion buns.
The menu is big but not overwhelming; the family-style setup makes it easy to order from every section. After the antipasti, why not share a few middle-course pastas before moving on to some bountiful mains? Ravioli as delicate as silk handkerchiefs ooze pungent robiola, while giant “gigantone” tubes soak up a rib-sticking “Sunday Night” rag so thick with swine, it’s like Italian pulled pork.
The entres are generous enough to share just a couple among a big group, even if you don’t order the chicken for two—a whole succulent bird roasted golden with copious garlic and herbs. Carmellini cooks like an Italian grandmother—delivering simple food with so much heart, the recipe might’ve been passed down from a long line of great cooks. His thin-sliced fatty “the way I like it” porchetta, stuffed with fennel pollen and topped with crisp crackling nuggets, is a succulent triumph—and a contender for pig dish of the year.
Locanda Verde is the rare Italian restaurant with desserts worth saving room for. Karen DeMasco, one of the city’s most acclaimed pastry chefs (best known for her work at Craft), is a maestro at perfecting treats at once homey and over-the-top. Her gifts are on full display at the espresso-bar-cum-takeout-counter on the dining room’s edge: enormous oatmeal-cookie sandwiches; a beautiful lemon tart; a rich, crumbly brown-butter plum cake. But DeMasco’s real masterpiece is a fantastical goblet of strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb. This mixed-berry “fantasia”—a textural treasure hunt featuring layers of shortbread, meringue and sweet zabaglione—is built to be shared by the table, but so tasty you’ll wind up fighting your way to the bottom. That’s the thing about Locanda Verde. No matter how sated you are, as more food arrives you still end up finishing every last bite.
Drink this: Ask for guidance from the effusive young sommelier—he knows his way around the restaurant’s reasonable wine list. His suggestion of an offbeat chianti alternative, the 2006 Pupille Morellino di Scansano ($45), was a perfect rustic fit for Carmellini’s cuisine.
Eat this: Charred octopus, meatball sliders, robiola ravioli, porchetta, mixed-berry fantasia
Sit here: Request an outdoor table on the sidewalk, or an indoor spot as far away as possible from the madhouse front door.
Conversation piece: After Ago flopped, a number of candidates began vying to take over the space. Before wooing Carmellini, De Niro was in serious talks with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who hoped to take his first stab at Italian cuisine.
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