Dining With Moira Hodgson

Vento Reinvents S&M Club

From Hellfire to Hearty Trattoria

dining out withA breeze has run through what was once Hellfire in the meatpacking district. Vento, which means “wind” in Italian, is a casual trattoria that takes up three floors and an outdoor terrace of a red-brick 19th-century building shaped like the prow of a ship. The basement, once a stable, was one of the most notorious S&M clubs back in the 70’s and 80’s. Now it’s a lounge called Level V, with exotic cocktails, a D.J. and a clientele dressed in miniskirts and flip-flops instead of dog collars and chains.

The restaurant is on the edge of a cobblestone square at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, an area that looked like a gritty backwater quartier of Paris when Pastis moved in several years ago. Now, the workmen in white jackets who lugged racks of beef from the meat warehouses have been all but replaced by trendy late-night restaurants, bars and boutiques. Down from Vento, there’s a busy new hotel, the Gansevoort, with its blue neon-lit lobby, as well as Spice Market and the private members’ club Soho House. Across the street is the Woofspa and Resort, where you can look through the window and observe the customers-dogs of all shapes and sizes-lolling about on white carpets.

Vento is owned by Stephen Hanson, whose empire of over a dozen restaurants (two in Times Square) includes Ruby Foo’s, Blue Water Grill, Blue Fin and Dos Caminos. His most serious establishment to date is Fiamma, which opened in Soho two years ago serving first-rate Italian food.

While Fiamma sets out to be haute couture , Vento is Mr. Hanson’s off-the-peg budget line. There are two extremely talented chefs at the helm: Michael White from Fiamma, with Martin Burge (lately of Tribeca’s Fresh) as chef de cuisine. Their aim is to provide the sort of simple, rustic food you would find in a homely trattoria in Italy. But this doesn’t stop Vento from feeling like a moneymaking machine, packing in as many people as it can hold.

The crowd jostling through the front door, which is manned by staff wearing earpieces and mumbling into their chests, was so large one evening that when the friend I was meeting eventually picked me out of the line, he asked facetiously, “Is this give-away night?”

Some of the customers-like the ones sporting tattoos worthy of a jailbird-would’ve fit in nicely at the Hellfire Club. One young woman wore an orange micro-mini with a long white rope dangling down the side, white thigh boots and a black leather jacket-even though the temperature outside was 85 degrees.

As we entered, the young hostess muttering into her microphone took us up a flight of wooden stairs to the second-floor dining room. Resembling a cafeteria, the brick-walled room was set up with rows of small wooden tables and brown chairs with plastic-covered seats. Small, cube-shaped light boxes line the ceiling, and the length of the room is punctuated by the original carved cast-iron columns, the most interesting architectural detail in the place. On the tables were black woven plastic mats, red glass bowls of white chrysanthemums and votive candles wrapped in scrolls of paper-but despite all this, the décor yells budget. “It’s not bad,” said my companion. “If this were an airport restaurant, you’d be pleasantly surprised.”

“Your server will bring you the menus,” said our hostess as she sat us down.

Why “server”? Why not “waiter” or “waitress”? Why this American urge to make everything non-gender-specific? The busboy-sorry, bus-server-filled our wineglasses with water, and the wait-server, unaware of the mistake, was prevented in the nick of time from pouring the wine into them, too. (The wine list, by the way, is entirely Italian.)

Vento’s cocktails are huge and delicious, and they include concoctions such as the Vento Vortex, made with raspberry vodka, crème de griotte and lime, or the Paradiso (rum, amaretto and white peach foam). I didn’t try the Casanova (vanilla vodka, green walnut amaro, espresso, cream and, of all things, Nutella). Instead, since it was a hot night, I ordered a Tom Collins.

The menu doesn’t deviate from standard Italian fare, which would be fine were the food at least consistent. Alas, simple Italian cooking-which depends so much on the ingredients-has nothing to hide behind when it goes wrong; eating at Vento is like a game of roulette. The food, from a stressed and overextended kitchen, is hit-or-miss. Order the tortelli, squares of pasta filled with ricotta, and they arrive literally glued to the plate, topped with a sprinkling of favas and tasteless morels. (They seemed to have spent as much time under the heat lamp as the dogs in the spa across the street do on their carpets.) But what a difference between that dish and the casarecci! The latter are rolled short pasta, and these were perfectly cooked al dente and tossed in a rich cream sauce laced with strips of prosciutto, peas and truffle oil. I was amazed to get pasta this good in a restaurant that serves 300 people a sitting.

Grilled prawns, cooked with their heads on and seasoned with orange, rosemary and garlic, were also exceptional. No complaints about the octopus, either-smoky, charred chunks tossed in a red wine sauce with roasted red peppers, grilled onions and olives. The dandelion salad, made with long, bitter leaves and tossed in a creamy vinaigrette with anchovies, grated Parmesan and garlic, was wonderful.

Big-eye tuna crudo was “little-eye” on the plate-four wimpy squares sprinkled with lime, peperoncino and sea salt. Four tiny but delicious mouthfuls.

After that, a ribeye arrived that looked gigantic. The steak was cooked properly but the meat was undistinguished, and it came with roast potatoes-served in a cast-iron dish-that were so salty they were inedible. Tuscan kale was also inedible, awash in vinegar. The cod was overcooked and garnished with a sweet-and-sour muddle of artichoke caponata, salsa verde and toasted almonds.

But the roast chicken was a different story: juicy, with a crisp skin sprinkled with herbs-the sort of dish you’d hope for in a country trattoria, served with escarole, pancetta and a smooth, light polenta.

Fiamma’s pastry chef, Elizabeth Katz, has wisely kept her choice of desserts to a minimum. Avoid the gummy, soapy chocolate torte served with a sorbet that tastes like boiled candy. Go instead for the wonderful lemon tart topped with berries and set off with a crunch of pistachio, or the chocolate semifreddo with milk chocolate fudge and salted hazelnuts.

On a warm night, the best place to sit at Vento is outside. Have a couple of the enormous, brightly colored cocktails, share one of the thin-crusted wood-fired pizzas (the crumbled sausage with onion and oregano is terrific), wind up with a chocolate gelato to finish, and you’ll have no complaints. And thank the Lord that Vento is not in Times Square-even though at times it feels like it is.