Based on my recent forays to restaurants, here’s the formula for success: low ceilings and tiled floors for ear-splitting decibels, a bar mobbed with pouty-lipped women on cellphones, and bathrooms so dark you have to step outside with a hand mirror to put on lipstick. The dining room will be filled with tables of four, six or even eight women. Like teenage girls, single, straight women go out in packs these days, and they head for trendy restaurants.
Tonight in Centro’s dining room, their high voices raise the decibels even more. And as always, there’s the laugh that, to quote P. G. Wodehouse, sounds like a herd of cavalry on a tin bridge.
All that being said, at Centro Vinoteca you also will find some very good food. Anne Burrell, who has appeared with Mario Batali on The Iron Chef, previously worked at Felidia and Savoy. When you walk into the restaurant, you can glimpse her at work in the gleaming chrome kitchen on the far side of the bar. With her spiky blond hair and red lipstick, she looks like a zaftig Kim Novak.
Burrell calls her own cooking, which is a modern interpretation of Italian cuisine, “creative-authentic.“ It is, and it’s also simple and gutsy, the sort of food you dream of finding at small country trattorias when you travel around Italy. Before the summer season is over, I urge you to put in your earplugs and head over to Centro for a plate of Burrell’s grilled sea scallops with pickled watermelon rind, or the sweet roasted heirloom beets she serves with a peppery herb salad, or a plate of those wonderful scallion and corn fritters I tasted at the bar with a glass of wine.
Centro opened early this summer on the corner where Bleecker and Barrow Streets converge with Seventh Avenue South; it takes up both floors of the triangular 1920’s building that was formerly Lemongrass Grill. It’s the latest venture from Sasha Muniak and his son Alexei, owners of Gusto and Mangia.
The bar, which is perpetually lined with women, is made of Indonesian nadun wood shaped liked an amoeba. A large modern chandelier made of steel and amber glass dominates the area. The black-and-white dining room beyond has white brick walls, white tile floors, black leather banquettes, polished wood tables set with brown paper mats and, hanging from the ceiling, vintage Murano glass chandeliers. This sounds more glamorous than it is. Perhaps it was the noise that caused my companion, who had to shout across the table, to say the place felt to him like TGI Friday’s.
The second floor is quieter, but the dreary lighting made my friend think he was eating in an airport lounge during a brownout. The same goes for the unisex bathrooms, which are candle-lit and have black mirrors so you can’t see yourself.
Centro has a good and reasonably priced Italian wine list, highlighting boutique producers, with around 200 bottles. About 30 wines are available by the quartino, many of them priced around $14. So you can mix and match wines, and to go with this idea, there are around eighteen piccolini (small plates) to choose from, listed on a separate menu, for dining tapas-style. The piccolini include zucchini fritters; fried cauliflower with creamy garlic sauce; grissini, or thin breadsticks, wrapped with prosciutto and arugula; and excellent marinated white anchovies or sardines.
There is a regular menu too, but many dishes will change when the summer harvest winds up. Meanwhile, skip the doughy goat-cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers and order instead the calamari, which are cut like thin noodles and tossed with fingerling potatoes, black olives and arugula. You might also begin with one of Burrell’s signature dishes, a large floppy raviolo topped with sage butter and served with two pieces of guanciale, Italian bacon. When you cut into it, you release a raw egg yolk; it would make a good breakfast, if Centro decides to start serving in the mornings.