Dining Out With Moira Hodgson

Another Scene on the Scene:

Trattoria Strikes Pose in Chelsea

It was a freezing night, and the wind lashed across the icy terrace of the Maritime Hotel, where empty tables, bereft of chairs and striped umbrellas, made the scene as forlorn as a beach resort in winter. The cold was so intense that the tears had frozen on my cheeks by the time I reached the far side of the terrace, pushed open a heavy front door and found myself in the bustle and warmth of an Italian trattoria.

Well, a trattoria of sorts.

La Bottega is the second restaurant to open in the trendy new Maritime Hotel (the other, in the basement, is the wonderful Japanese restaurant, Matsuri). Both restaurants are owned by Eric Goode (B-Bar, Area, Time Café and Bowery Bar) and Sean MacPherson (Bar Marmont, Swingers). And, not surprisingly, from the moment they opened, both became “scenes.” But they are very different from one another.

While Matsuri is a masterpiece of design, La Bottega feels like a Keith McNally rip-off. It’s smart and attractive, but it doesn’t convince: The hanging hams and salamis, the vintage baking tools, the Italian posters, the terrazzo tile, the neat rows of back-lit Campari, Fernet-Branca and Cynar bottles, the blazing pizza oven, the bright, polished mirrors are all just a bit too glossy, making the place seem like an Epcot Center reproduction.

The dining room, which gives onto the terrace, is huge, with wood paneling and the same white tiles as Schiller’s. A long mahogany Art Deco bar, already packed on this cold night, is separated from the dining area by wine racks and stacks of oranges placed above the banquettes, which are the most exciting and elegant piece of design in the restaurant. The slatted wooden benches resemble the third-class seats on old Italian trains but are a good deal more comfortable, since they’re covered with burnished leather pads.

We sat down in one of the booths, and I ordered a carafe of wine-another clever McNally idea. A carafe costs around $17 to $19, which isn’t quite the bargain it appears if you translate what that would cost per bottle. But the wine list, which is entirely Italian, with interesting choices, is fairly priced. Soon after we were seated, the busboy brought over some pizza bread shaped like a pita, and I got off to a good start by pouring white wine onto my side plate, mistaking the carafe for the bottle of olive oil. I must have been distracted by the noise.

“It’s very loud here,” said my companion.

Alas, yes. Very loud.

If there is one cuisine that has resisted “improvements,” so-called modern touches or fusion with the cuisine of other countries, it’s Italian. I’ve seen chefs who can’t leave well enough alone try to update a puttanesca sauce by adding Asian vegetables or invent a new pizza topping by throwing on some foie gras or raw fish. Forget it. The best Italian food is the simplest, and it’s all about ingredients. Chef John De Lucie, who has worked at Oceana and Nick and Tony’s Cafe, knows this and sticks with straightforward, familiar dishes. The kitchen offers a choice of seven pizzas and pastas and simple main courses such as lamb shank with polenta, chicken cooked under a brick and veal Milanese. The prices are right, too, with pizza and pasta priced around $12 to $15 and main courses between $19 and $25.

When the kitchen is on form, the food here can be very good. One of my favorite dishes was the grilled sardines. They were extremely fresh, perfectly cooked under a golden skin. Carpaccio of octopus and warm calamari with avocado and tomato were also good. But we fared less well with salads. When I ordered artichokes with white truffle oil, I expected them to be raw and cut in slivers in the traditional manner. They were slivered and raw, all right, but tossed with bits of greenery and shredded radicchio which so overwhelmed the artichokes with its bitterness that you couldn’t really taste them at all. The dish wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t order it again. Seafood salad was swamped by greenery, too, including a lot of frisée. It was a mess to look at, but the occasional pieces of seafood that lurked in the foliage-shrimp, calamari, octopus and mussels-were fresh and properly cooked. But it seemed to me that there was an awful lot of filler going into these salads.

The pizza is perfectly good, but not exceptional. The crusts are thin and the toppings range from spicy sausage with mozzarella to sundried tomato with anchovies and olives, to Robiola cheese with white truffle oil.

One evening I had a fine pappardelle topped with a rich ragu of rabbit. Orecchiette was nicely al dente and tossed with broccoli rabe, red pepper and garlic. But whoever cooked the black linguine another night must have gone off to make a phone call in the middle: It was a mush. The tentatively spiced tomato sauce, laced with baby octopus, was quite pleasant but curiously bland.

Main courses were also uneven. A New York strip steak, served Florentine style with sautéed spinach, was juicy and had a good beefy flavor. Veal Milanese was first-rate, a huge portion, tender under its crispy light breading, served with a heap of organic greens tossed in oil. Whole grilled branzino arrived on a cedar plank, its skin a criss-crossed latticework, making it look like a rusty piece of tin. Our friendly waiter offered to fillet it, but my companion insisted on doing it herself. It was so overcooked that the flesh fell off the bones like wet Kleenex.

For dessert, there was a lovely, creamy tiramisu and a moist ricotta cheesecake with caramelized oranges. But the apple tart with cinnamon gelato was doughy and undercooked. Warm chocolate cake-a flat cowpat with vanilla gelato-was so bland as to be almost tasteless.

“Are you still working on those?” asked our waiter.

Work was the right word.

Suddenly, someone turned the disco music up so loud that we nearly jumped out of our seats.

“They must be joking!” I said to the waiter.

He smiled and replied, “The only thing to do now is dance.”