Rome is one of our favorite cities. It's not like we've been to lots and lots of cities, because we haven't - but of the ones we've been to...I'd guess for Significant Eater it's probably Paris; for me, it's gotta be Rome.
The reasons are many and varied. We love the people, not just of Rome, but of Italy in general. They take life at a different pace and it's a pace we enjoy. There is time for a quick cappuccino and a cornetti in the morning - and if it's a cappuccino, it's before 11 AM. Order one after 11 AM, and you'll draw some concerned looks, because after 11, it's espresso only. There is time to linger over a great work of art, or just to stop and chat with your friends in the piazza. There is time for a glass of vino in the early evening, there is the time honored tradition of La Passeggiata and there is always time to linger over a meal - be it lunch or dinner.
So, what to do when we spend 99% of our time in New York? Other than hopping an Alitalia flight (not always feasible, unfortunately) and cooking at home (I've gotten really good at Bucatini all'Amatriciana and Spaghetti a Cacio e Pepe, 2 Roman classics), there are a number of restaurants in New York that do an admirable job of cooking Roman and Italian cuisine.
Perhaps our favorite is the extremely casual 'inoteca. The original 'inoteca opened almost 6 years ago on the corner of Rivington and Ludlow Streets, on the lower east side of Manhattan. Ever since day one, 'inoteca has been a place we frequent when we are craving a few small plates or perhaps a panino, accompanied by a nice glass of reasonably priced Italian wine. It's also a place we go when we want to feel like maybe we're in Italy; perhaps even Rome. Because that's when the owners come in - you see, 'inoteca is co-owned by Jason and Joe Denton, along with its executive chef Eric Kleinman. Trust me on this - there are no more welcoming owners than Jason and Joe. While Eric may be busy at work in front of the stoves (after a long stint at Lupa as sous-chef), it's Jason or Joe who greet the customers, with a warm friendly hello - just like you might get in Italy. As an aside, they both honed their craft from a rather famous uncle, restaurateur and raconteur Harry Denton in San Francisco - and in a strange twist, I used to frequent Harry Denton's in San Francisco's financial district during my long stint in the Bay area...Jason may have even been working behind the bar during one of my visits, though my memory of those nights is a bit hazy.
Recently, a second location of 'inoteca opened; the more uptown ‘inoteca, vino, cucina e liquori bar, formerly Bar Milano, located at 323 Third Ave. at 24th St., a neighborhood which isn't exactly food or restaurant central. And after a wait of about a month, Significant Eater and I finally got a chance to try the "new" 'inoteca and we were not disappointed.
Arriving at around 7:15, we were told a table would be available in just a few minutes - certainly not the case 30 minutes later. I had wanted to step into the bar to check it out, but the hostess said it would be best to take cocktails at our table, and one look into the bar (virtually unchanged from its previous incarnation) assured me that she was right - it was packed.
The first thing we noticed after being brought our menus was that the cocktail list had expanded dramatically. Not only are the original cocktails developed for Bar Milano still on the list, but classics as well as not-so-classics (the Widow's Kiss, for example) are there as well. We opened with a Last Word (SE) and a standard Manhattan (me), which were both finely executed. Oh, did I mention the Last Word is made with V.E.P. Chartreuse (at least for now) and comes in at $10. As do all the cocktails...it appears the Dentons are intent on getting this crowd to drink some good cocktails - selling them at perhaps the best price point in the city.
As for the food, uptown 'inoteca doesn't disappoint. Additions to the menu include about 5 or 6 pastas, as well as a similar number of spiedini, with the rest of the menu essentially a carbon copy of downtown's.
Starting with suppli, the gooey, cheese filled balls of risotto - deep-fried to a nice crisp - is always a good idea. They go surprisingly well with the last sips of a Manhattan. Quickly we tried a couple of the new dishes - and both the spiedini we had hit the spot. 2 skewers of quail, crisp and juicy at the same time, came atop a farro salad. Octopus spiedini was tasty as well, hunks of grilled octo-mom dressed simply with olive oil and sitting on a bed of, for want of a better word, Italian potato salad.
Dying to to try a pasta from the expanded menu, we ordered the tagliatelle con ragu - perfectly cooked pasta enhanced by the sweet and meaty ragu. (The other pastas look good as well - think Lupa pasta, and how bad can that be?) And that thing about pasta that most Americans don't get - pasta is the main ingredient (cooked al dente) and the sauce is the condiment and that's just how it's served here. Kudos to Chef Kleinman.
For an old favorite, we had the polpette, 3 large, tender meatballs (I'm guessing a combo of beef, veal and/or pork) on a bed of caramelized onion and tomato. Nice, and the leftovers were good for lunch the next day as well. Of course, at this point you might think we were being gluttons - okay, we were. So we also tried the beet salad, the earthiness of the beets enhanced by mint and pecorino; and the grilled calamari with fennel, a nice combo, the squid cooked just so and as good as always. Dessert, which we didn't have room for (but which we ate none the less), was the affogato, which is vanilla gelato with a shot of espresso (we had it minus the espresso), and the budino di cioccolata, basically an intense bitter chocolate pudding. At $5 and $6, these desserts compete with many of the $10 options around town; not in fanciness, 'cause they're not fancy, but in taste - and I'll take a delicious dessert any day of the week.
In these tough times, retooling the high concept Bar Milano into 'inoteca seems to be a good bet. To be able to have a couple of nice cocktails, or a half-bottle of wine, along with a few winning plates and get out for let's say $50 - $75 for two, is no doubt going to make 'inoteca "uptown" as tough a ticket as the downtown location has always been. That's why it's nice that they're on Open Table. So reserve and go.
If you want to make that Last Word at home, it's equal parts good gin (Beefeater is fine), Chartreuse (preferably green or VEP), Maraschino Liqueur and lime juice, shaken like crazy with lots of ice.
For a Widow's Kiss, it's 1.5 oz. calvados or applejack (we use Laird's Bonded), 3/4 oz. Benedictine, 3/4 oz. yellow Chartreuse and a coupla dashes of Angostura bitters, stirred like crazy with lots of ice. A cherry garnish is optional - but not if you only have those weird red fake cherries in a jar - in that case, leave it out.
I didn't take any pictures during our meal at 'inoteca, so I'll leave you all with a few shots from our last trip to Rome. Enjoy.
Here's spaghetti con vongole, and note that all the sauce has been absorbed by the pasta...
And some shots from around town, including the Fontana del Moro in Piazza Navona...
behind the Colosseo...
Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano from across the Tiber...
and the Fontana di Trevi, from right down in front...