It was early-bird special time at Barocco. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a place like this at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night. But here we were, our 9-year-old son in tow. He was just getting into his first Shirley Temple when an artist friend whom I couldn’t imagine out of bed before noon strolled in for dinner with his small son. Within the hour, apart from the fact that most of the adults were dressed in black, Barocco might have been a family restaurant in the Sun Belt.
Back in 1986 when Barocco opened in TriBeCa, it was a hip outpost in a remote part of Manhattan that was in the throes of becoming residential. It was very much the local (successful) artists’ spot, a loud, noisy and quite expensive trattoria with small, closely packed tables and people hopping from one to the other, raising their voices above the din and the music.
The large, square, dimly lit dining room looks exactly as it did a decade ago. Its huge windows on the corner of Church and Walker streets are still hung with white venetian blinds, and its odd décor remains the same, too: the 60’s-style glass brick panels, Corinthian columns, exposed pipes and ducts crisscrossing the ceiling, and Art Deco light fixtures.
My husband scanned the wine list and ordered a bottle of Dolcetto; they were out of it. Three bottles later, he managed to find one that was in stock. “Those are the same bottles of wine they were out of 10 years ago,” he said.
As the restaurant filled up, the lights dimmed, and someone turned up the music.
“That band sounds a lot better than the one that played for us in school yesterday,” said Alexander.
“Why didn’t you like it?” I asked.
“It was a rock band about religion,” he explained. “Rock bands are supposed to play loud, noisy music about people you have crushes on, not ‘This Little Light of Mine.'”
He took another sip from his glass. “They make a strong Shirley Temple at Barocco.”
Needless to say, I had not tried the Shirley Temple here. But judging from the color of the drink, the bartender appeared to have dumped the better part of a bottle of grenadine into it, to Alexander’s evident satisfaction. Like the other parents in the room, we set about the task of deflecting our offspring’s boredom before the food arrived. Alexander decided to have a quiz show, which my husband tried to derail with his questions. “(1) For one dollar, other than English, Shakespeare sounds best in what language? (2) Most people take what to a Chinese laundry? (3) A bullfighter gets given what after a good bullfight?” (For answers, see below.)
The game came to a halt with the arrival of the food, which was very good, beginning with a plate of chilled octopus vinaigrette with haricots verts and a salad of frisée, croutons and pecorino tossed in a pungent anchovy dressing. My husband pronounced the tagliata, which was seared and sliced, the best non-steakhouse steak he’d had in New York. The pink, garlicky roast rack of lamb with rosemary and crisp roast potatoes was also delicious. We ended dinner sharing a creamy tiramisù that Alexander said looked like an extraterrestrial from Mars.
During the week, there are other forms of distraction at Barocco. I don’t recall ever seeing anything quite like the scene I witnessed on another night when I came back with some more grown-up friends. We were finishing our first courses-hot juicy shrimp on white beans dressed with lemon and cilantro, salmon gravlax, a refreshing salad of fennel with Parmesan shavings and arugula, and a heap of crisp fried calamari. The food was well prepared, fresh and without gimmicks. One of my friends, who was eating grilled shiitake mushrooms on a green salad, kept staring into the distance behind me. “Change places!” she said at last. “You won’t believe what is going on over there.”
In the corner of the long black banquette that runs along one wall of the dining room, a fellow who must have been all of 5 feet 2 inches was sandwiched between two substantial women, one with a mane of red hair that cascaded down the back of her slip dress and the other sporting a bob and a white blouse that was unbuttoned to her waist. As one of the women got on with her food, he would kiss and fondle the other, alternating between them like a guest at a dinner party who politely divides his attention between his immediate neighbors.
It was difficult, as things at the next table became increasingly heated, to concentrate on the food. Luckily, no groundbreaking or strange juxtapositions of ingredients make demands on your mind or palate at Barocco. The cooking is simple, straightforward, rustic-the sort of thing you would expect to find in a good hillside restaurant in the north of Italy. The pastas were exceptional: a creamy lasagna filled with meat and porcini under a light béchamel, and a plate of pappardelle topped with a rich dark sauce made with rabbit, squab and black olive tapenade. The poached salmon with spinach and ginger was a bit dry, but the whole grilled baby chicken, splayed out suggestively over its bed of polenta, was perfectly cooked, juicy and tender.
We were onto espresso when the trio on the banquette collected themselves and staggered out of the restaurant.
“I guess they’re in for a hot time tonight,” someone said. “Do you suppose they live nearby?”
“Heavens, no!” replied one of my friends who does. “Behaving like that? They must be from out of town!”
Answers to quiz: (1) German. (2) Shirts. (3) An ear.
301 Church Street
Dress: Casual hip
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Italian, reasonably priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch main courses $10 to $25, dinner $12 to $27
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 3:30 P.M.
Dinner: Daily 6 P.M. to 11 P.M.
* *: Very good
* * *: Excellent
* * * *: Outstanding
No star: Poor