Who can resist a bargain? Even though it was the last night of Thanksgiving weekend (a holiday we’d celebrated twice in one day) and we’d sworn off food, we headed straight to Merge for “Gino’s Soprano Style Dinner.” This four-course, family-style Italian feast, served only on Sunday nights, takes its name from the HBO series, which airs on Sundays and stars a very well-fed mobster. At $25–with as much wine as you can drink for an extra eight bucks–it’s a huge hit. As Oscar Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess.
“You get all the appetizers on the list, not just one,” said our waitress who, like the rest of the staff, was dressed in black. With her dark, curly hair and dreamy expression, she looked like the sort of cute maid Vittorio Gassman would have pursued in one of those 50′s comedies set in Sicily.
“Jeez!” said my son, looking at the menu. “All that? It’s, like, 19 courses! Are they small?”
Out waitress merely smiled and went off to fetch glasses of the free-flowing wine. Normally, when a place offers all you can eat or drink for a cheap price, it means that one taste will be more than enough. But the wines (Palazone Chianti and Dubina Bianco) were perfectly pleasant. And given the wait between courses, customers can drink more than their money’s worth.
Our waitress returned with three small plates, each containing what looked like an orange golf ball topped with a miniature yellow doily. Relieved that this was the size of the appetizers on the extensive lineup, my son set upon his arancino, a Sicilian specialty made of deep-fried risotto stuffed with ground beef afloat on a light, creamy yellow-tomato sauce. The doily was a lacy little Parmesan crisp.
“Leave room for the rest of the food,” said my husband, his words falling on deaf ears as my son cleaned the last drops of sauce off his plate.
However, this was not the size of things to come. The arancini were followed by a shared platter of antipasti that would have fed the whole Sopranos cast, heaped with sliced marinated mushrooms, slivers of prosciutto with melon balls, marinated red peppers, salami and fontina. A plate of tomatoes and mozzarella laced with shredded basil was next, then a dish of crisp breaded calamari with fried parsley and a spicy marinara dipping sauce. Still to follow were a bowl of breaded mussels and thick wedges of one of the best versions of eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever tasted.
“Now only four things to go,” said the waitress as she cleared the table to make room for plates of Caesar salad. Eventually she brought the main course-a platter of meatballs, sausages and flavorful braciola, and a bowl of rigatoni in a thick, spicy tomato “gravy.”
Though it sounds like a trattoria in Little Italy, Merge is a chic new Greenwich Village restaurant that serves contemporary American cuisine the rest of the week. Co-owners Gino Diaferia and chef Sam DeMarco (of First in the East Village) also recently opened District in the new Muse Hotel on West 46th Street. The outside looks the same as it has for years, with a window surrounded by red brick that resembles a giant pizza oven. But inside, the former Indigo space has been redone in muted gray and beige, with carpeting not on the floor but on the banquettes, extending over the backs and halfway up the wall. The booths by the front bar (where you can get lollipop Buffalo wings, mini-burgers and seafood tacos along with “tiny ‘tinis,” small, lethal martinis that have a cult following at First) are probably a more comfortable spot than the rather claustrophobic back room, which can get very noisy. Even though the tables are set with paper mats and cheery votives in small brown paper bags, the decor is cool and not particularly inviting, which is at odds with the generosity of the cooking.
Merge has become a big draw in the neighborhood, due in no small part to the fact that it’s an exceptionally good value, with main courses between $15 and $21. They may not offer all-you-can-drink wine for eight bucks all week long, but the international wine list has many bottles under $30. Our Sunday dinner was simple and uncomplicated, with everything as it should be. On other visits, however, I found dishes on the regular menu uneven. Fried oysters, a DeMarco signature, were underseasoned and too breaded one night; the accompanying wasabi mayonnaise was surprisingly bland. The “6th Street” lamb satay, served with dal, raita and chickpeas, had been sprinkled with so much ground spice that the coating tasted powdery. But a green salad, with dates and walnuts in a port wine vinaigrette, was a good combination of sharp, sweet and bitter flavors. I also liked the potato leek soup laced with truffle oil.
We fared better with the main courses. Large diver sea scallops were crunchy beneath the lightly browned breading, paired with sharp celery-root rémoulade and haricots verts. A snowy chunk of pan-roasted cod was made even more soothing with bacon-laced braised Savoy cabbage and great, crisp garlic potato chips. Roast pork chops were a little tough, but they were saved by the sugary tzimmes , an Eastern European side dish made with honeyed carrots, sweet potatoes and prunes with lemon juice and cumin. (“Like a festive pork-chop dessert,” said the person eating it.) A mustard vinaigrette balanced the sweetness. Grilled hanger steak was given a Russian twist with roasted beets, horseradish sour cream and potato pierogi. The combination worked, but the quality of meat could have been better (even for this lower-budget cut).
Desserts included a pumpkin panna cotta, topped with fruit and shreds of pumpkin on a graham crust, and the predictable (but always irresistible) warm Valrhôna chocolate cake, paired with frozen honey cream.
As obscene as it may sound, the Sunday-night feast concluded with a wedge of cheesecake. But we could eat no more. Our waitress insisted on wrapping ours up, just in case we got hungry again. In the taxi, I told my son about an Italian Thanksgiving I went to years ago in Queens. The meal was similar to the one we had just eaten, except there was also roast turkey, fish and veal. As I was desperately trying to find room for the slices of cheesecake and pie that had been heaped upon my plate, the grandfather leaped up with a start and said, “Hey! We forgotta da stuffed artichoke!” His wife, looking stricken, ran into the kitchen. Upon her return, everyone pushed their dessert plates aside and dove into the artichokes without a moment’s hesitation.
“I don’t want any cheesecake,” said my son when we got home. But when I unwrapped it, revealing three creamy slices topped with fresh blackberries, we couldn’t resist. “Just a bite,” I said. We sat down and finished the lot.
142 West 10th Street
Noise level: High
Wine list: Moderately priced, with 12 wines by the glass
Credit cards: American Express only
Price range: Main courses $15 to $21; Sunday prix fixe $25, unlimited wine $8
Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor