Il Buco is like one of those country trattorias where the host does the cooking with products he’s grown in his own backyard. But in this restaurant’s backyard, instead of olive groves, vineyards and a few chickens, you’d find shops stocked with hardware, kitchen equipment and hundreds of different kinds of light bulbs.
For although the inside of Il Buco may look like an old farmhouse on the outskirts of a hill town in Umbria, it’s on a dark and desolate block between the Bowery and Lafayette Street. You walk into a dining room where rough, well-worn wooden tables of various sizes sport large sprays of flowers in enameled tin jugs and candles oozing melted wax. Copper pots, vintage tools, meat hooks and folksy chandeliers made of old kitchen implements hang from the low-beamed ceiling. Glasses are stacked in rickety cabinets, and a wooden cobbler’s rack displays bowls of fruit and vegetables instead of boots.
Il Buco has nothing if not atmosphere. When the restaurant first opened eight years ago, it was an antique store by day and a tapas bar by night. If a patchwork quilt, a vintage radio or a plastic handbag from the 50’s struck your fancy, you could add the price to your dinner bill and take it home. (The service was a bit bizarre, too. On my first visit, after being ignored at the door, we’d asked a passing staff member who was in charge. “I think the only person in charge is God,” he had replied equably, before busying himself with the reservations book.) Now the antiques are no longer for sale; the restaurant sells food products from Italy instead, including olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Sicilian sea salt.
Il Buco has had quite a revolving door in its kitchen over the course of its history. Most recently, in February, it was taken over by its former consulting chef, Jeremy Griffiths, a Welshman who has also worked at the Stanhope and Park Bistro and who spent three years cooking in the south of France.
The waiters are dressed all in black; they have that indefinable male Village waiter look: actors who could be cast in anything from Genet’s The Balcony to Man of La Mancha . They are efficient and serious about food, too. Just get them started talking about the three different olive oils the restaurant produces, or the specially filtered water they serve instead of the usual bottled stuff.
When you sit down, the waiter brings over a glass beaker of some of the famous olive oil (which he pours into a small dish), a bowl of the special sea salt and a basket of crusty peasant bread. Most of the menu is devoted to tapas-there are over 18 of them, and they are outstanding. You can make a meal sharing them, although be warned: You may think you’re in some laid-back bohemian Village joint, but the small dishes, which range in price from $6 for a plate of olives to $24 for baby eels, add up fast. Most of them are so good, it’s hard to say stop.
You can begin with “troutlings,” tiny whole fish fried in a light batter and sprinkled with capers, lemon and parsley. Portuguese sardines stuffed in the Sicilian manner with Swiss chard, pine nuts and sultanas are also excellent. So is the grilled octopus: thick, tender chunks served with pieces of blood orange and charred fennel. When Il Buco started serving this dish it was a novelty, but now chefs all around town seem to have fallen in love with octopus, and it’s not hard to see why.
Monkfish liver is not exactly ubiquitous, however-and I like it so much more than the fish it belongs to. At Il Buco it’s like foie gras, seared and served with balsamic vinegar and “burnt citrus,” a thoroughly caramelized lemon. It’s great. So is the sashimi-grade tuna which is seared and cut in thick slices that are heaped on a pile of large, creamy “bianchi di spagna” beans and seasoned with this year’s exotic flavor: wild fennel pollen, along with olive oil and sea salt. Thin slivers of aged serrano ham make the perfect foil for caramelized membrillo (quince), and Moroccan spices add a North African note to plump and juicy grilled quail, which arrives reclining on a bed of barley with green olives and preserved lemon.
After such wonderful tapas, the pastas are a bit of a disappointment. Airy pillows of gnocchi made with arugula and tossed in a sage sauce are surprisingly tasteless. Garganelli with serrano ham, smoked ricotta and arugula doesn’t really come together, although my companion, having pronounced it inedible, proceeded to
finish the whole thing. Bucatini with sardines, raisins, pine nuts and fennel pollen is a better choice, but it isn’t up to the level of the tapas either.
Every day there are specials of about four pastas and three main courses which tend to be fairly robust, such as braised lamb shanks, veal chop or pork tenderloin. At Il Buco I tasted one of the best suckling pigs I’ve ever had, with a creamy, moist white meat under a crisp crackling skin, served with sautéed parsley root and caramelized apples.
The extensive wine list is excellent, with many unusual choices from Italy and Spain, and the cheese selection is also good, served with quince paste. For dessert there’s a thin, slightly chewy dark-chocolate cake with whipped cream and an unusual panna cotta served under a sprinkling of aged balsamic vinegar, which is odd but interesting.
And in case you’re curious about your future, Il Buco even has a fortuneteller who wanders in several nights a week. As we were having dinner, a Gypsy-looking woman stopped at the adjacent table and offered the occupants a tarot reading for $40 or a palm reading for $25. The man, who was from Spain, shook his head. “I would never do that!” The woman he was with, a fresh-faced American, looked crestfallen. So, within minutes, the cards were spread out on their table.
Afterward, he looked at us and shook his head in disbelief. “She scared the heck out of me!” he said. “It was truly amazing. And don’t think we know her!” he added.
Before long the cards were out on our table, too. “You have two secrets,” she began. “One you tell me and one you keep to yourself …. “
Forty dollars later, we were shaking our heads in disbelief, too.
Given its charm and its wonderful food, it’s not surprising that, after all these years, Il Buco is still packed nightly with a lively crowd. As we were winding up dinner one night, a woman stopped by our table. “Don’t you just love this place?” she remarked.
Il Buco **
47 Bond Street
Dress: Casual Noise Level: Quite High Wine List: Extensive international list, well chosen, reasonably priced Credit Cards: American Express only Price Range: Tapas, $6 to $24; main courses, $18 to $28 Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday, 12 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Dinner: Sunday to Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m. Closed Mondays
* good ** very good *** excellent **** outstanding no star poor