Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Restaurant 9: Otto

LOCATION: 1 Fifth Avenue
DATE: April 24, 2005
FOOD: Split the following - Calamari, Potatoes, Chili Antipasti; Penne con Noci e Zucca (Hazelnuts, Butternut Squash, Smoked Ricotta with Penne Pasta); Funghi & Taleggio Otto Pizza; Pane Frattau Otto Pizza (Tomato, Pecorino, Egg); 3 Gelato Combination: Rose-Rosemary, Olive Oil, Goat’s Milk Ricotta.
BEVERAGE: Quartino of Rose House Wine; Decaf Café Americano
PRICE: $55.00

I credit Mario Batali with reawakening the love of Italian food that grew latent in my culinary habits during the red sauce landfill that was/is Charlottesville. I first went to Otto on my birthday and was so enlivened by the savory sparks there displayed, I followed with visits to Lupa and the unforgettable Babbo. Nietzsche writes of the law of eternal return and anyone that’s visited one of Batali’s restaurants knows exactly what the crazy German philosopher was talking about. The big difference between ol’ Freaky Friedy and Mario though, is I doubt a Batali eternal return will end with you gushing your soul's secrets to the neighbor’s Mr. Ed (but you never know). Giving Batali the nickname of Zarathustra does seem more and more appropriate. He’s at least speaking to me from the mountaintop (Italian Alps?).

I hadn’t originally even intended on going to Otto. Danny had never seen any of the Godfather Trilogy so I planned a day around this deficiency, with the intention of beginning at the widely praised Una Pizza Napoletana. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s owner, Anthony Mangieri, had once again changed the hours, opening only at 5:30 and completely removing the possibility of a Sunday lunch. So instead, we opted for Otto’s controversial cracker-thin pizza. If only all fall-backs were so magnificent.

The layout alone of Otto is wonderful. From the wine bar at the entrance, to the European inspired alley outside the restaurant’s window, it’s easy to forget you’re still in GW’s America after walking in the doors. Our waiter was exceptionally gracious in helping me select a wine and I picked a Rose, though I typically stay away from blush wines. It was pleasantly fruity, the slightly sweet taste fitting in well with the feathery hours of lunch.

On my last visit, I had sampled widely on the antipasti menu, so this time I decided to focus on the pizza. However, this didn’t preempt my love of calamari and an order of this Pesce appetizer. Olive-oil chili pesto painted the octopus like a Botticelli canvas. The boiled potato pieces were a nice textural contrast to the calamari, while the zesty spice of the chili really made the dish come alive. The squash penne came next and was outstanding, the squash firm without being hard and the hazelnut providing a welcome crunch of sweetness. It was a simple dish that spoke wonders of Batali’s talent, as pumpkin would have been too bitter, sweet potato too sugary, but the butternut squash the proverbial Goldilocks vegetable of the dish – just right.

But onwards to the reason for the visit – the aforementioned pizza. Apparently, this is a controversy inducing pie, food boards abounding with competing opinions as to whether the crust is too thin. In my mind there’s no argument. Both pizzas we tried were delicious. Starting with the drunk delicious Gus Burger in college (back when I still trusted cow meat), I discovered that a runny egg yoke adds flavor to just about anything. The Pane Frattau pizza used this knowledge excellently, starting with a simple sauce and pecorino base as the launching board for an almost Tomato Eggs Benedict (in honor of the new pope?) of a pizza. I also liked the funghi and taleggio pizza, though I was surprised at just how pungent a cheese taleggio is. Fortunately, the cheese wasn’t overdone, and the focal emphasis was on the well-seasoned mushrooms.

Of course, no meal at Otto is complete without gelato and so gelato we had. There are more traditional flavors on the menu, but I like novelty and the just plain weird. The olive oil came drizzled with oil, producing an amazing dessert that is like nothing else – not too salty but at the same time, creamy and sugary enough to qualify as a true dessert (this wasn’t WD-50’s edamame ice cream to be sure). The ricotta gelato was like a light cheesecake, while the rose-rosemary was throw your spoon-down-never-need-to-try-any-other-gelato-in-your-life-again great. Mixing the airiness of rose water with the rustic strength of rosemary produced a luminary gelato I’ve been dreaming about ever since.

So Zarathustra struck again. If Nietzche was right, and power is a subjective force, malleable to he who can create the most convincing interpretation of the world which leads the masses to follow on the Superman’s will to dominance, then we all better watch out for a Batali empire, because his interpretation of Italian is downright mesmerizing.

RATING: 8.1/10

1 comment:

aaron said...

calamari is squid, not octopus, so which did you eat? AMS. P.S. JC = God (and no, I'm not talking about jesus christ)