It was a warm night and a friend and I were having dinner outdoors in a quiet, leafy courtyard. Renaissance statues in various stages of undress peeked out from under the trees, a fountain flanked by cherubs burbled in the center and, above us, the houses rose black into the darkness. This tranquil summer scene could have been set in a piazza in almost any small town in Italy. But we were slap in the middle of the theater district, on West 46th Street, just a few blocks from Times Square.
Barbetta is one of the oldest restaurants in New York City, established in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio in a couple of beautiful town houses built by the Astors in the late 19th century. It is now owned by his daughter Laura, and provides as unexpected a setting for a plate of spaghetti–albeit priced in the hefty two figures for a half-portion–as you could imagine.
Barbetta’s lobby is eccentrically decorated, with display cases of old valentines, an enormous brown landscape of Mondavi in Piedmont (dated 1682), and an 18th-century Venetian harpsichord. We walked past a long, empty bar that led to a large pink dining room with doors that opened onto a garden. It was elaborately done up with pink scalloped curtains, polished candelabra, brocade chairs, gilt tables, little boudoir lamps and marble floors; the ceiling was hung with an 18th-century cut-glass chandelier (from a palazzo in Turin in Piedmont, I later learned). At 8 o’clock, the room was empty; the pre-theater crowd had left. (When I came to Barbetta at lunchtime on matinee day, both the dining room and the garden were packed, and a tinkling piano played “Moscow Nights” while the customers, mostly women, tucked into plates of risotto and tried unsuccessfully to ignore the cakes and pastries piled on the dessert trolley that was wheeled continuously around the room.)
The food at Barbetta is from Piedmont (where the Maioglio family came from), the region of white truffles and many of Italy’s greatest wines, such as Barbaresco and Barolo. But when I first went to Barbetta, the fancy décor, the staff in black tie, the long menu and the enormous leather-bound wine list that went on for 40 pages (not to mention the prices: $26 for a full portion of pasta and risotto, $8 for a bowl of soup) led me to wonder what was in store. But chef Marius Pavlak’s dishes are rustic and earthy, with all the spontaneity of the best Italian home-cooked food, from the pretty salads to the lavish desserts. They are elegantly presented, too (and given a contemporary touch with minced parsley scattered over large white plates). The menu provides an entertaining history lesson, since it gives the dates when dishes were first served at the restaurant, from zuppa inglese in 1906 to “nutty nuts tart” in 1998.
If you were around in the 60’s, you will remember vitello tonnato (first served at Barbetta in 1962), a dish that was as much a fixture on my parents’ buffet table in those days as poached salmon with cucumber petals. I asked the waiter what it came with. “Vegetables,” he replied.
“Any particular kind?”
“No. Just vegetables.”
But he did go and find out. Barbetta’s version is made with rosy slices of veal under a layer of creamy tuna mayonnaise and was topped, on this occasion, with batons of marinated zucchini (you can also get chicken tonnato instead of veal). Also from the 60’s is a dish called pollo al babj, flattened baked chicken, a little salty but delicious, served with a crisp pancake of thin sliced potatoes.
But my favorite was this year’s specialty, juicy pink charcoal-grilled squab with a slice of foie gras and served on a pool of red beet olive oil and summer greens. Also very good was the veal scaloppine al prezzemolo, tender enough to cut with a spoon– a timeless classic, presumably, since there was no date. Nor was there a date for the baked turbot, which was moist and flaky, served with puréed turnips and parsley sauce.
Pasta and risotto are outstanding at Barbetta. Dating from 1906, the “tajarin” with salsa di campagna (thin noodles with basil and tomatoes) was wonderful, as was the farfalle with peas. In the 70’s, not to be outdone by the French and their nouvelle cuisine, Italians started putting vodka in their pasta sauce and making strange risotto with strawberries or balsamic vinegar. Not to be outdone, in 1973 Barbetta put a risotto with rosé champagne on the menu. There is nothing weird about this dish at all, and in fact we could not stop eating it: creamy but al dente, with just the right proportion of cheese, and the champagne adding–as it is wont to do–a subtle kick. I also liked last year’s model of risotto, made with finely chopped herbs.
Barbetta has a great Italian wine list, although at dinner there wasn’t anyone about who seemed well informed about it. (When I asked for an interesting but inexpensive white wine, the captain–who was otherwise extremely helpful–took a perfunctory look through the whites on the list and then suggested a mundane pinot grigio.) At lunch, however, there was a sommelier who seemed to know more.
It is a shame to miss the dessert trolley at Barbetta, and the performance that cheerfully accompanied it one afternoon was as much fun as anything in the theaters down the street. “Bosc pears in red wine–fabulous! Driscoll strawberries, the best in the world, from California!” extolled the waiter, who confessed he was an actor “between shows.”
“The torta di nocciole is to die for. I’ll give you a little slice–and how about a little slice of chocolate cake, too? Why not? The panna cotta is great, too. Go on, have a spoonful on the side.”
“‘Heaven … I’m in heaven,'” he crooned as he put a touch of raspberry sauce there and a touch of cream here and handed us our plates.
After the first taste, we were, too.
321 West 46th Street,
Between Eighth and Ninth avenues
Noise level: Piano music
Wine list: Excellent and extensive Italian selection, expensive
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $26 to $32
Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday noon to 1:45 P.M.
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 11:30 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor