Unparalleled Italian Hospitality and Elegance in the Meatpacking District
The crown jewel of the Batali and Bastianich hospitality group–the visionaries of Italian cuisine that brought the world Eataly and Babbo among others–demanded something special. Mario, Joe, and Lidia are adept at bringing the rustic and comforting flavors of their culture to the masses, yet a disappointing dinner at Marea has soured me to idea of translating Italy’s culinary excellence to a fine dining setting. For me, so much of the enjoyment of Italian food comes from its bountifulness, the warmth of the laughter at the table, and wine poured with a heavy, generous hand. Despite a palatial setting that rivals some of the city’s best dining rooms and an entry price of $126 for the standard prix fixe menu, Del Posto melds sprezzatura with true refinement.
Perhaps it’s my own weakness for the mesmerizing rhythm of the Italian accent (of which the restaurants boasts more than a couple practitioners), but rarely have I seen service so earnest. The staff delivers dishes and refills water not with mere robotic precision, but with the warmth and graciousness of a host. The food–while certainly pretty–is treated with an approachability that avoids any undue fussiness or meandering descriptions. Tables are generously spaced and allow an uncommon feeling of privacy for such a popular establishment. Pacing, I must also say, was comfortably above average, another feat and a testament to the coordination between front and back of house.
Del Posto’s menu centers wholly on Northern Italian cuisine under the watchful eye of chef Mark Ladner. While that means one would be hard pressed to spy any meatballs or sausage lurking at the pass, the restaurant does elevate eternal favorites like pasta e fagioli and steak Florentine. Diners can choose from the aforementioned prix fixe offering, which includes choice of antipasto, entrée and dessert with two “tastes” of pasta shared by the table, or an eight-course “Captain’s Menu” done in the traditional tasting style. The wine list–save for champagne offerings–is wholly and impressively sourced from Italy, with a particular focus on small producers and eclectic varietals. Wine pairings run $95 and $155 respectively for the two menu options but, for the lofty price, are both approachable and reassuringly large pours.
As always, I opted for the larger of the two menus. Rather than being a set selection of dishes, the Captain’s Menu is crafted through a dialogue with the server regarding likes and dislikes along with questions of temperature and preparation. Compared to simply asking about dietary restrictions or allergies (which sometimes prompts pause in guests who feel they might compromise their experience), I found this manner of ordering far more useful and geared towards delivering each individual guest the best menu possible. With my openness to any and all dishes the kitchen might conjure noted, I sat only a few moments before the meal’s first bites arrived. A comforting cup of lentil soup joined a crisp radish roll and wonderful, warm ball of arancini. A pillowy finger sandwich filled with crab capped off the amuse bouches, which–despite the usual daintiness–possessed an intensity and complexity of flavor rarely seen in the opening salvo of snacks. The bread basket (yes, an entire basket) proved another delight. Piled high with ciabatta, rustic Italian, and herbed loaves, the pleasantly warm rounds were made all the better accompanying orbs of sweet cream butter and whipped lardo.
The first dish of the meal proper showcased chef Ladner’s take on steak tartare, carne cruda in Italian. Glistening chunks of well-marbled beef joined specks of black truffle with playful topping of salsify “chips.” While the meat and truffle impressed with the classic combination of fatty and earthy, the crunch of the salsify made the dish. Most tartares demand crisp bread to lap up all the unctuous steak, but the generous layer of chips allowed for an altogether easier and more complete bite. The quality of the ingredients surely shone through, yet the textural excellence made the carne cruda memorable.
Next came a simple but satisfying fritto misto. A favorite dish since childhood, when I learned that it meant a mixed big of fried foods, Del Posto’s variation featured zucchini and calamari with flat-leaf parsley and a spicy caper butter. Coated in a thin batter and devoid of any excess oil, the vegetables and seafood had a lightness that reminded me of great tempura. Pleasantly, both zucchini and calamari retained some of their own personality and natural sweetness. Also, though I often find capers to be a bit too assertive, here–rounded out by the butter–they provided and essential and enjoyable burst of tang and brine to cut through the fried items. The tartare might have succeeded through creativity, but the fritto misto showed an impressive restraint and quintessentially Italian respect for the ingredients.
Just one pasta dish appeared during the course of the meal, but the restaurant made sure it was one of their best. Handmade orecchiette was paired with lamb neck sausage, broccoli rabe, ricotta salata, and crispy porcini mushroom in an interesting blend of tradition and imagination. The “little ears” were incredibly delicate, perfectly al dente, and possessed the mouthfeel only truly superb pasta can provide. With each bite, they proved a perfect canvas for the hints of grated Parmigiano and earthy porcini on the plate. The lamb sausage itself was powerfully meaty but used with care and well balanced with the fresh ricotta and bite of the broccoli rabe. It’s no surprise that Babbo, Batali and Bastianich’s Village Italian restaurant, offers an all pasta tasting menu. The portion orecchiette was just enough to leave me satisfied, but not nearly enough to stop me from daydreaming about it for days to come.
After the highest highs of the pasta course, the meal faltered a bit as it moved into the entrees. A preparation of wild striped bass in saor (a Venetian style sweet and sour marinade) was enjoyably rich and tangy. However, accompanying bitter greens were so overpoweringly bitter that they had to be discarded entirely. I’ve only ever encountered that level of bitterness at Contra (where, if you remember, radicchio similarly ruined a piece of veal) and am beginning to suspect it’s an issue of age and palate development. Nonetheless, I feel Ladner’s fish preparation still deserves credit.
A preparation of veal saltimbocca faced just the opposite problem, with the accompanying braised black kale (cavolo nero) and crisped potatoes proving better than the protein. The kale stands as one of the best preparations of the maligned leaf I’ve tasted, reminding of intensely rich collard greens, while the potatoes displayed a crunch and dusting of Parmigiano that makes one wonder how so many other restaurants cannot get such a simple thing right. The glistening slab of veal certainly looked attractive on the plate, but possessed a disappointing chew on the palate and not enough intensity of prosciutto or sage flavor to look past it. I knew that veal saltimbocca was one of Del Posto’s signature dishes–and the quality of the sides certainly showed that–but rued what seemed like a very avoidable mistake.
The shift towards dessert began with wonderfully creamy wedge of quadrello di bufala from Lombardy served with a toasted end of bread and spot of small batch honey from Missouri. Though the cheese was sweet enough to cap off the meal alone, a zuccotto di zucca (warm pumpkin pastry) with powdered sugar and pumpkin seed delivered an even richer, more comforting note. A selection of petit fours that included bomboloni, chocolate truffles, and ginger candies in edible wrappers accompanied the check and drew the dinner to a colorful and quirky close.
While my meal at Del Posto wasn’t without a couple obvious missteps, the restaurant is inarguably a conceptual triumph. More than simply featuring Italian flavors and frills, the experience exudes the very soul and spirit of Italy. Dishes push boundaries gently, enhancing rather than alienating familiar flavors. The staff does the same, bringing the class of fine dining to your table with the care of a friend. It’s that warmth and sincerity that makes faults in technique excusable, understandable. Del Posto, for its Michelin star and famed owners, is not a faceless and impersonal behemoth. It feels like pulling up a chair in grandma’s kitchen–just dressed up a bit (a lot). You won’t leave hungry, and, I think, you’ll leave quite happy too.
Date Visited: 12/4/15