New Raucous Italian Where
Old Raucous Italian Once Stood”Any special requests?” asked the receptionist when I called to make a reservation at BreadTribeca. I was dumbfounded. What did she have in mind? A vegetarian meal and a window seat? “I meant,” she said, sounding a bit confused herself, “is it a birthday, or would you like a quiet table?”
A quiet table! Now wouldn’t that be grand?
Fat chance. There isn’t a quiet table in this place, which used to be Barocco, a similarly raucous Italian restaurant. But BreadTribeca isn’t unbearably noisy, like so many of the new places I’ve dined in recently. It’s loud the way Italy can be loud: in a friendly, big-hearted way. People are squeezed in at the bar, waiting for their tables, which are squeezed together across the dining room in long lines. Meanwhile, the waiters cheerfully squeeze past with their plates of food and carafes of wine.
BreadTribeca is an offshoot of Bread, the tiny, very popular sandwich shop on the far eastern end of Spring Street. But this restaurant, in addition to a sampling of the wonderful sandwiches that made its elder sibling’s reputation, has a full-fledged menu and wine list. Many of the dishes, such as trenette with clams and the stuffed squid with roasted beets, are from the province of Liguria on the Italian Riviera. A local specialty, focaccia made with a thin yeastless dough and stuffed with stracchino cheese, is cooked in a wood-burning oven, as are the pizzas and items such as Cornish hen, steak and New Zealand mussels.
The first night I came here, the Yankees were playing the Marlins and the entire restaurant was galvanized by the game, which was being shown on a huge, flat-screen television next to the bar. On normal evenings, the television is a design element, showing old black-and-white movies (which I find just as mesmerizing) in keeping with the color scheme of the large, lofty dining room. On this night, it had people leaping to their feet.
The dining room has white brick walls, white tables, black chairs and huge windows that look out onto the corner of Church and Walker streets. A long, black concrete banquette, set on either side with a row of small white tables, acts as a separator from the bar area. The “quiet table” the receptionist may have had in mind when we spoke on the phone seats six and sits on a platform next to the bar, sort of like the high table at an Oxford college.
BreadTribeca and the original sandwich shop are owned by Luigi Comandatore, formerly of the Mercer Kitchen. His Tribeca partner is Bob Giraldi, the film director of Dinner Rush and a co-owner of Jean Georges, Vong and the Mercer Kitchen. Executive chef Iacopo Falai was previously at Le Cirque 2000 and Osteria del Circo, and consulting chef Mirko Natali is from Genoa, birthplace of pesto (properly made with a mortar and pestle, folks, never in a blender!).
With some terrific bread and a carafe of Negroamaro-a dry red wine from Puglia-set before us on a cutting board that was also laden with top-quality prosciutto, bresaola, salami, cheeses and roasted vegetables, I almost felt I was in Italy. Of course, if I really had been in Italy, there would be children in the restaurant, way past their bedtime, eating pizza and rolling about on the floor, and there’d be a soccer game on the screen. But I was in Tribeca, and the pizzas being pulled from the wood-burning oven were for young couples (who probably only recently graduated from strawberry milkshakes to the restaurant’s strawberry “caipirinhas”), Wall Street executives and the one or two artists still left in the neighborhood.
Our waiter set down a pile of fritto misto wrapped in brown paper as if it was a bunch of flowers. The batter was as light as tempura, and the mix, which included shrimp, cod, sardines, calamari, zucchini, onions and fennel, was garnished with wedges of lime. Fresh sardines were also served fried, arranged on a bed of arugula tossed with oil and lemon peel. And another dish reminiscent of Italy’s coastline consisted of ink-black pieces of tender squid, served with arugula and sweet roasted beets-a lovely combination.
In general, however, the food at BreadTribeca is hit-and-miss. I liked the warm pumpkin tart, served with sliced red and yellow tomatoes beneath a frilly round petticoat of puff pastry. “An odd choice with pumpkin,” said my friend who had ordered it, “but it does clear the palate.” A thin slice of stuffed breast of veal looked like a rubber bath mat. Thankfully, it didn’t have the texture of rubber: It was delicate but bland, and the green salsa verde it came with should have done more to perk up the meat. The dish reminded my friend of “deli lunch meat” with “a comforting 50’s taste.”
Grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes didn’t have much taste, either. But the grilled head-on shrimp, served on a cutting board with oven-grilled vegetables, had plenty of flavor and were perfectly cooked. So was the juicy rib-eye steak, also served on a wooden platter, with cipollini and roast potatoes that could have used more salt.
BreadTribeca’s desserts are also uneven. Panna cotta, with lemon mint liquor and cherries, had the consistency of chewing gum. The pumpkin crème brûlée was also thick and heavy, and someone had gone hog-wild with a blow torch, scorching the sugar on the top. But the strawberry soup, served with a dollop of moscata-flavored cream, was delicious, as was the thick, dark chocolate mousse with raspberries. Fritelle-airy beignets the size of golf balls, filled with a light orange cream and served with a dark basil chocolate sauce-would have been wonderful had they been hotter.
The beignets sum up my feelings about BreadTribeca. The spirit is there, but the cooking hasn’t quite arrived yet. The fritto misto alone, however, is worth the journey.