Not for nothing does Gusto call itself a “Bar Americano.” Most cocktail menus give me a sinking feeling; after a quick look, I hand them back and order something plain and sensible. But the glorious-looking drinks here, which include six kinds of Bloody Mary and five prosecco cocktails, are not gimmicks, and they’re made with fresh juices. A delicious, sour Campari-like concoction combines Aperol (a rhubarb aperitif), citrus juices and bitters. The Bellini isn’t rich with nectar, like the one at Harry’s Bar in Venice, but more like a sparkling peach fizz. An interesting rosemary-infused martini with Pernod and dry vermouth-not too sweet-is also very good.
These-or a glass of cold white wine-go nicely with a plate of deep-fried artichokes, looking like burnished sunflowers, that arrive piled on a plate with a piece of lemon. Carciofi alla giudea, the famous specialty of Rome, is on the menu at this new Italian restaurant, which takes up a double storefront in a small 19th-century building on Greenwich Avenue and Perry Street.
Gusto, which is owned by Sasha Muniak of Mangia, has a sleek, chic décor that’s a throwback to the aesthetic of the Italian cinema of the 50’s and 60’s (black and white, of course). It has round, black-velvet banquettes, polished black tables and a white marble-brick floor. An immense 1950’s Viennese crystal chandelier hangs from the beamed white ceiling, and the long bar is set with black-and-white-striped Missoni stools. Mirrors run the length of one side of the room; plain white walls the other. Anita Ekberg’s unforgettable décolletage from La Dolce Vita graces the menu cover.
The soundtrack from various Italian films of the period is less successful, at times downright jarring.
Gusto’s chef, Jody Williams, spent five years in Italy, cooking in Rome and Emilia Romagna. Her rustic food and her fine appreciation of simple, fresh ingredients impressed me first at Il Buco in Noho, and later when she was chef at Giorgione in Soho. At Gusto, she doesn’t stick to one region of Italy but travels all over the country, changing the menu with the seasons, from Capri and Sicily in the summer to Northern Piedmont, Mantova and Venice in the winter.
Now, for summer, she is serving burrata, a fresh, soft mozzarella made from cream, with red peppers and spiky leaves of arugula. Her famous salad of fava beans is tossed with chopped escarole, mint leaves and grated pecorino. A pile of fritto misto arrives with lemon and sea salt (it’s a huge portion, enough for two or more, and even includes a little sardine); fried zucchini flowers are filled with mozzarella.
Zucchini flowers show up again in a lovely saffron risotto laced with paper-thin slivers of zucchini. Glazed grilled squab, its flesh pink and juicy underneath a crisp skin, comes with ripe black figs. Yum. There are some good things about summer in New York.
Our waitress, who had a throaty voice like an actress in a Fellini movie, set down a bowl of radishes topped with anchovies mashed in olive oil and a basket of bread that included thin slices of grilled, salted focaccia. Also good to eat with cocktails or a glass of wine are artichokes served alla romana, stewed in olive oil with mint and garlic, or a platter of mackerel en escabeche with marinated red peppers, chilies, mint and onion. Small boiled shrimp come plain with lemon, a simple dish that would’ve been perfect had they not been a tad overcooked.
Among the main courses, clams with Fregola didn’t quite work, even though the broth was good. It was hard to eat the big pearls of couscous that rolled about on top of the clams (no spoon). But a dish of regular couscous, scented with saffron and topped with pieces of lobster, mussels, shrimp and baby tomatoes, was great, as was the grilled tuna belly, its soft, unctuous flesh served with crushed black olives, escarole and grilled vegetables. From Sicily, there is al dente bucatini, topped with sardines mixed with crunchy breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins, as well as light, airy meatballs, also with pine nuts and raisins, in a delicate tomato sauce. I also liked the tiny pink lamb chops, which were roasted with artichokes, pecorino and lemon.
Desserts are inconsistent, pulled straight from the refrigerator one night, room temperature on another. They include a flourless chocolate cake, a rhubarb tart and a terrific lemon ricotta cake that is nicely tart, dense and crunchy with almonds. Roast peaches in amaretto were unripe, and even the cooking failed to soften them properly. (What’s up with this year’s peaches? I bought some recently and even after three weeks in a paper bag, they were still rock-hard but riddled with brown spots-having gone, as Oscar Wilde once famously remarked about America, from infancy to senility without ever going through a period of maturity.)
One evening, I sat at a booth by the front door of Gusto, looking out at the last traces of a sunset, eating artichokes. One reason for going to restaurants is to eat dishes you don’t make at home. Carciofi alla giudea is on my list. The first time I cooked it, I carefully followed a recipe in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. I simmered the artichokes in a deep pan of boiling oil, pressing them down once in a while to make the leaves fan out. Then, once they’d achieved a golden hue, I sprinkled some cold water over them. I was following the book’s instructions to the letter: “This operation has the effect of making the artichokes crisp and crackling.”
“Crackling” turned out to be an understatement. With a series of explosions like a round of artillery fire, the oil burst into flames two feet high, covering the walls and the ceiling with a thick layer of soot and grease.
Just another reason to head over to Gusto for Jody Williams’ wonderful deep-fried artichokes.