A meal at Gemma, the Italian restaurant in the new Bowery Hotel from Eric Goode and Sean McPherson—their first venture following the ubersuccessful Waverly Inn—proves exceptionally time efficient. One trip to this aspiring hot spot saves visits to a handful of its ilk. No need to dine at La Bottega, another Goode-McPherson production where Gemma’s chef Chris D’Amico last cooked; you can scratch Morandi, which employs a similar wood-heavy, trattoria-meets-bistro design, off the list; go ahead and skip mingling with the poseur crowd at Goode and McPherson’s The Park—it appears to have gravitated here.
For some reason, all of those places pack ’em in. Take it as a testament to the gullibility of certain New York diners, who are consistently fooled by these tired yet effective markers of exclusivity: artfully generated (though unearned) buzz, a no-reservations policy and the disingenuous coyness of supposedly being in “previews” after more than a month of service.The nights I visited, things were moving along right on schedule: By 8pm, the impressionable hordes of single women, gay men and sugar-daddy dates had filled the beamed room, lined with wine bottles, copper pots and candles dripping artful mounds of wax that some poor underling must have spent hours getting just right.
The food possesses even less imagination—the menu, with its crudi (scallops and black truffle, yellowfin tuna and citrus), antipasti (crostini with basil and acidless tomatoes, textbook fritto misto), pastas (orecchiette and broccoli rabe) and mains (a hideously sinewy veal chop), indicates not an iota of originality. Most attempts at ingenuity come off as feeble jokes, thanks to often-dismal execution.
D’Amico makes cheese and cured meat the centerpieces of the starters, though I’m not sure why: The cold, dull speck and coppa I sampled were fit for a Subway sandwich, while somehow even the Gorgonzola from the selection of run-of-the-mill, mostly cow’s-milk cheeses tasted neutral.
Gemma’s pastas were downright lousy. Pasty gnocchi came in a sour bolognese that approximated what I’d expect from a can, and the dish had the uneven temperature consistent with a quick zap in the microwave. It was one of the worst things I’ve ordered all year. The rigatoni with cubed prosciutto and peas was better, but the smoky cream sauce had a goopiness more appropriate for a college dining hall than a trendy dining room.
D’Amico’s thin-crust pizzas were merely acceptable: Decent ingredients, including the large mozzarella slices and whole basil leaves on the Margherita, are cooked in a hickory-burning oven that imparts a pleasant, if passionless, char. Less than pleasing was a mushroom pizza that promised porcini, oyster and shiitake ’shrooms, but delivered about three unidentifiable slivers of fungus per slice. Both pizzas, like many dishes, suffered from the unusual vice of undersalting.
I did enjoy another dish from the oven—a crisp-skinned roasted chicken entrée—but a cedar-plank branzino fillet, which emerged on a sheet of wood with burning red embers still spewing threads of acrid smoke, carried a horrible, herringlike aftertaste.
The only food I ate with gusto was a handbag-size dessert calzone stuffed with Nutella and ricotta cheese. It’s $15, and still a bargain—three people would do well to finish it.
Atop Gemma’s menu is a Latin motto that translates to “a grain of salt.” Which is exactly how diners should take this latest version of Goode-McPherson fabulousness.