“The problem with giving up drinking,” Frank Sinatra once said, “is that you know that the way you feel when you wake up in the morning is the best you’re going to feel all day.”
I thought of Sinatra on New Year’s Eve as I sat with some friends on a cream-colored semi-circular leather banquette in the dining room of Abboccato, an Italian restaurant that has opened across the street from City Center.
You’d never guess from the look of the place that it’s only two months old. The décor is 1950’s time warp-Frank Sinatra meets Vincent Price. The dining room has a low ceiling and the walls are covered with padded cream leather or rough-hewn gray stucco and hung with thin wrought-iron candelabra. There is a long dark bar, an iron wine rack, and waiters who carve meats and fillet whole fish at tableside stations. The only missing detail is that classic artifact, a black-and-white celebrity photograph signed “To Giovanni, mille grazie for the great food and wonderful times …. ”
Instead of starting off like Frank with clams casino and a martini, I had a glass of the house Prosecco (a fine sparkling wine from Veneto) and a plate of “crudo” that included bay scallops sprinkled with, I kid you not, “bittersweet chocolate pressed olive oil.” Even though Abboccato sets out to produce authentic Italian dishes, much of the food here is embellished in ways you’d hardly associate with regional restaurants in Italy, what with the array of fancy condiments and indented square china and glass plates.
For the most part, the food here is very good, which comes as no surprise considering the team behind Abboccato. It’s owned by the Livanos family, proprietors of two three-star restaurants: Oceana, which specializes in seafood, and Molyvos, where Greek cuisine is served. Chef partner Jim Botsacos comes to Abboccato from Molyvos, and the chef de cuisine, Jake Addeo, was previously at the Italian restaurant Esca.
As the four of us, seated comfortably in a semicircle, looked out across the room, a blonde in a floor-length white fur coat and long white gloves strode past, followed by a bespectacled man in black tie. She tossed her coat over the banquette, revealing a metallic gray backless gown that looked as though it had been poured onto her. She posed, hand on hip, by the table as her companion took photographs of her without getting up from his seat. It was New Year’s Eve, after all. And the crowd that had made its determined way past the police barricades (with e-mailed letters from the restaurant confirming their reservation acting as a form of passport) was indeed eclectic. Across the way, four young women were dressed in various degrees of lingerie dishabille. (I could hear my mother exclaiming, “They’ve forgotten to put on their tops!”) At another table sat three respectable middle-aged couples, dressed for the evening in thick sweaters and open-necked shirts.
When our drinks were served, half-filled espresso cups were set down on the table. Our waiter, who looked like a young Robin Williams, said they contained something that sounded like zucchini. My husband blanched. “Lentils!” said the waiter. “Good luck for the New Year. They’re topped with osetra caviar and whipped buffalo ricotta. Each lentil symbolizes a coin.” There’s something very decadent about eating lentils topped with caviar, but we could’ve happily eaten mugfuls of this delicious concoction, which was laced with pieces of sausage, too.
I should note here that Abboccato is on the expensive side, with first courses between $11 and $18, pasta courses averaging $20 apiece, and main courses from $26 to $30. Tableside-carved dishes (the rack of lamb, branzino or steak Florentine) range from $60 to $70 for two, plus side dishes at $8 each: steakhouse prices. The wine list, entirely Italian, with many bottles from lesser-known vineyards, is fairly priced.
Instead of regular bread, our meal began with terrific grissini, thin and misshapen and liberally salted. Halfway through dinner, circles of puffed, oiled Ligurian focaccia appeared, served in individual copper casseroles.
Of all the first courses I tried, there was not a loser among them. Affettati misti (a.k.a. cold cuts) consisted of slices of excellent prosciutto, speck and salami served with gnocco fritto, a fried bread from Emilia Romagna. The buffalo mozzarella was irreproachably fresh, cut in chunks and arranged like a TV dinner on an indented rectangular white plate with dipping sauces of olive oil, blood orange compote, balsamic vinegar and tomato essence. Grilled octopus had a wonderful charred exterior and was soft and almost creamy underneath; fritto misto was coated with a delicate batter made from fine polenta and served with cranberry beans and shavings of onion. The foie gras was pure heaven, accompanied by little stewed dumplings filled with plums, espresso crumbs that added a nice crunch, and a rich, spiced fruit “reduction” that probably dates back to the time of the Medici.
Casumziei ampezzani, half moons of pasta filled with beet and sweet gorgonzola, sprinkled with poppy seeds and tiny beet micro greens. Spaghetti came topped with golden slivers of bottarga (dried mullet roe) and tossed with razor clams, toasted bread crumbs and orange peel. Great.
But I wasn’t impressed with the fish. Grouper, poached in olive oil with cauliflowers, capers and golden raisins, and black bass with artichokes and salsa verde were perfectly pleasant, but not memorable. The rolled roasted monkfish was soft, stringy and dull.
Stick to the meat. One intriguing dish dates from the Renaissance: veal cheeks subtly flavored with vanilla, paired with chunks of wild boar braised in a red wine sauce with spices and bitter chocolate, separated by a mound of polenta. Roast squab was also marvelous, cut into buttery pink slices and served with a delicate butternut squash tortini and a treacly balsamic vinegar sauce.
The desserts by David Carmichael, also at Oceana, topped off dinner on a high note. They included a tart of Piedmontese cherries served with a zeppelin of Cabernet Franc sorbet; a lovely lemon tart from Capri; and a truly amazing chocolate mousse, decorated with plumes made of mandarin orange. There’s even an ice cream made with Strega, the Italian liqueur known as “the Witch.” What would Frank have made of that, I wonder?