The other night, I was looking over the menu in a fashionable Lower East Side restaurant. “Do you recommend the cod or the trout?” I asked the waiter.
“The cod’s good,” he replied. “But the trout is more challenging.”
Challenging! The waiter might as well have slapped me across the face with his napkin. Of course, I rose to the occasion at once. The trout, it turned out, bore no resemblance to any fish at all, but looked like a shiny pink column dropped onto the dish from a child’s building-block set (you’ll hear more about this meal another day).
There are times, however, when I don’t feel like being challenged at the table, staring down at my plate and wondering what on earth it was that I’d ordered. So when a friend wanted to celebrate his birthday recently, I played it safe and chose Roberto Passon, an Italian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen (another rapidly gentrifying neighborhood) that serves straightforward Venetian cuisine. The dishes are oversized and dotted with sauces and herb oils and so on, but the food is recognizable. What’s more, it’s inexpensive. A first-rate spaghetti carbonara costs just $9, and a three-course prix fixe lunch is $15.
The restaurant is on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 50th Street. With its spotless lemon-yellow walls and matching awning, it stands out like a beacon on this grimy strip, dotted with ethnic restaurants, that’s just a short walk from the theater district. Roberto Passon, who is from the Friuli region near Venice, is the chef and owner in partnership with the New York City Restaurant Group, whose empire includes Puttanesca and Arte. He was formerly at Le Zie in Chelsea and Le Zoccole in the East Village. His new restaurant is chic without being snooty, staffed by affable waiters, mostly from Italy, who wear jaunty, blue-striped shirts and yellow ties.
The 64-seat dining room is bright and airy, with windows on two sides hung with long, white curtains. There’s a small bar in the back. Rows of tables are set with candles and white linen cloths, and the creamy-white walls are sparely decorated with small wine racks and shelves of wine bottles. The wine list is entirely Italian, with unusual choices. Over a dozen bottles are in the $30 range, and for spenders there’s a reserve list with selections in the three figures.
Five of us gathered for the birthday dinner. At my request, we squeezed ourselves around two tables pushed together (more intimacy, less shouting than three). As he dipped a piece of crusty peasant bread into a bowl of chopped tomatoes in olive oil, the birthday honoree told us a story: “This summer, there was a show in the Hamptons in a gallery not much bigger than these two tables. The owner advertised an exhibition where you could watch artists paint two nudes. So many people arrived that most of them couldn’t even get near the front door.”
For his first course, he ordered white asparagus. It was pencil-thin, cooked in brown butter, arranged on a bed of prosciutto and topped with a perfectly poached egg. The other first courses, all very traditional, were also good (except the sautéed octopus with chives and potatoes, which was a trifle chewy). They included pristinely fresh buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes; carpaccio with arugula and truffle oil, topped with slivers of Parmesan; and artichokes with carmelized tomatoes and kalamata olives, served in a bowl made from a Parmesan crisp. You broke off pieces of the crisp as you ate the artichokes.
At lunch another day, I was disappointed by the fried calamari, which weren’t crisp. A Caesar salad, made with chopped romaine in a beautifully creamy dressing loaded with Parmigiano Reggiano, would have benefited from the garnish of a beautiful silver anchovy instead of the gritty number that reclined on top.
With the exception of the fettuccine with mushrooms I also had at lunch, salty from an over-reduced sauce, the pastas were excellent, especially the taglierini with lamb ragu and the black tagliatelle tossed with clams, mussels and prosecco.
They should put the osso buco, a special of the day chosen by the birthday honoree, on the menu. He was ecstatic, and by then was also on a first-name basis with the waiter, Maurizio from Milan. Roberto Passon has all the easy informality of a neighborhood restaurant in Italy, which makes it such a pleasure.
The food isn’t always perfect, though. The salmon was overcooked, and at lunch another day (when, I suspect, the chef wasn’t in the kitchen), the rabbit—one of his signature dishes—was dry. But it came in a fine sauce made with peppers, kalamata olives and tomato, sopped up with squares of grilled white polenta.
Desserts arrived on giant square plates. The panna cotta was perfection, as light and creamy as I’ve ever had, served with strawberry sauce and a compote of strawberries. The profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce were good, too, as was the ubiquitous warm flourless chocolate cake and a ripe pear poached in port wine. The birthday celebrant ordered crème brûlée with chocolate sauce. Maurizio set down a plate lavishly decorated with birthday greetings, and the waiters sang. It was corny and fun. The crème brûlée didn’t need the chocolate sauce, but my friend responded to the challenge and ate the whole thing anyway.