Even as New York starts to rebound from the recession, restaurant risk-takers are rare, and projects like comfort-food clubhouses and low-key trattorias are the play-it-safe norm. Bucking the trend is Il Matto—a Tribeca newcomer that isn’t just pushing the envelope, it’s tearing it up.
The restaurant, the most theatrical new venue since warrior-themed Ninja, features avant-garde Italian cuisine and zany mixed drinks, served in a dining room that looks as if it were pilfered from a Tim Burton film set.
The space—think Lewis Carroll on MDMA—glows peep-show red thanks to trippy overhead lights. Snug wraparound booths, outfitted with wheels like Mad Tea Party cups, come with built-in wine coolers and saltshakers shaped like hand grenades. A huge framed tableau features tagging by graffiti icon Toxic, and the cocktails are shaken and stirred in a DJ-style booth near the entrance.
Matteo Boglione, the chef behind this intrepid endeavor, cooked pretty straightforward fare at his last post—Gradisca in the West Village. And while his dishes at Il Matto are more outr, they aren’t quite as deranged as the setting. Jiggly, confited pork-belly cubes in one generous starter are served alongside expertly seared head-on shrimp. The swine is beautifully matched with chopped olives in honey, the seafood with a smooth chickpea puree. Exceptionally supple poached octopus tentacles, in a more unusual surf-and-turf appetizer, come perched on a loose terrine featuring surprisingly harmonious layers of stacked mortadella, sliced potato and bright basil pesto.
Boglione’s fresh pastas, meanwhile, betray a lingering attachment to the old-country canon. Veal osso bucco—an unctuous rag of spoon-tender shank meat—is paired with delicate ribbons of saffron pappardelle. Eggless strands of pici pasta, a thick and chewy regional Italian specialty, are adeptly sauced in a shower of shelled clams, fresh tomatoes and briny bottarga.
Entres dive much less successfully into the conceptual deep end. Beet-red seared tuna slices, artfully arranged like a Cubist collage—with slices of panfried cotechino sausage shingled between them—arrive lukewarm and mealy. Chicken breast anchors another odd composition: a study in beige, with celery-root puree, fried garlic chips and an off-putting assault of gummy mashed peanuts.
Desserts are a more solid mix of the outrageous and classic. Eggplant takes a bizarre but delicious sweet turn in the millefoglio—mellow roasted slices sandwiching white chocolate and nougat—that ought to score Boglione an Iron Chef challenger slot. An expertly rendered straight-up crme brle—with fresh berries inside and caramelized nuts on top—comes with a miniature ricotta-and-fresh-strawberry shake sent down from the bar, where marquee mixologist Christina Bini reigns.
Bini’s sweet and savory creations are perhaps the best reason to visit Il Matto. The complex, cerebral and remarkably balanced concoctions—a delicious riff on a Bloody Mary made with saline clam juice; a tart, edgy attempt at a liquid salad with gin, strawberry, balsamic vinegar and lettuce—are ideally pondered sans food as a stand-alone course.
While those drinks hint at the psychedelic experience the restaurant strives to deliver, the place ultimately falls short of mind-bending. Still, if nothing else, a meal here is provocative, and in an industry currently light on daredevils, a conceptual gamble like Il Matto is an exciting detour.
Drink this: The saladlike La Signoria ($14), Clamato Mary ($15)
Eat this: Pork belly with shrimp, octopus with mortadella, osso bucco papardelle, eggplant millefoglio
Sit here: The plush teacup booths, though certainly striking, are too cramped for anyone but a waif with good posture. Instead, grab one of the handmade wooden chairs that fill out the rest of the room.
Conversation piece: Il Matto translates as “madman” or “fool,” a traditional figure from the Italian tarot card deck.
See more Restaurant reviews