Lucky me. I got to hop on an airplane at Martha’s Vineyard Airport and land at JFK in New York forty minutes later. Within a few hours I was sitting with two of my best friends at Il Buco Alimentari and Vineria. I know about this restaurant located in downtown Manhattan because former Il Buco employee and head of the grocery portion of the restaurant, Aaron Oster, is now a chef on the Vineyard.
The restaurant is divided into two sections on the first floor. Walking in the door, you enter into the “alimentari” portion, or the grocery. There are wooden shelves laden with jarred, preserved, and dried goods, as well as chocolates and other sweets. It seems to mimic the pantry of an Italian grandma, who has found ways to stretch out all the delicious fare of the bountiful season for the onslaught of cold weather and barren land. There is a meat and cheese counter (salumi e formaggi), and a communal wooden table down the middle of the room, where people can dine right in the grocery.
A few wide steps down, and you enter the bar and dining portion, situated in front of the luminous open kitchen, where ten or more cooks in little orange caps are working, focused and neat. They look like a true sports team in these orange caps with a white stripe running down the middle, and right now I’m wishing I photographed them, that’s house cute they are. They should belong on tintin, or some other cartoon figure.
The room is romantically lit, and feels fluttering with candlelight, whether it is or is not (I don’t think I saw any candles, actually). The energy is positive and bustling, and the staff seems to be genuinely in good spirits. We did not encounter a single grumpy person, and everyone was happy to help us, but not in a fake, programmed way. They seemed to be actually joyful, hostesses, bussers, food runners, cooks, chefs and waiters included. We even asked to change our seats after initially being seated upstairs, in a quieter room. I wanted to be part of the action, and show my friends the flavor of the restaurant. No one made me feel like I was being too demanding, and they were able to grant our request.
Upon being seated at a high-top, counter-like table which we shared with other guests, our adorable server, Sean, came over and filled each of our glasses with prosecco, which I had ordered beforehand to celebrate my talented friend Jillette Johnson’s EP release. As Sean he poured the bubbly, he said, “this is compliments of a secret admirer, because I believe one of you has just released a new album”. That comment made my friend light up with surprise and appreciation. He could have simply poured the prosecco and said “compliments of your friends,” but he acknowledged the success we were celebrating. Which meant he took care to check our reservation notes and realize what we were celebrating. Two thumbs up.
We ordered everything to share. To start, we had Polpo A La Plancha, seared Octopus with Umbrian chickpeas, red onion and pickled currants. The octopus had a smokey yet caramelized exterior, that had a texture of resistance to the bite until you reached the flesh in the center, where it was tender and juicy. While the pickled currants and chickpeas did not have such a strong flavor presence, the red onions made themselves known but not overbearing. The presentation was beautiful and the juices and veggies left on the plate were perfect mopping material for the crusty bread.
Our Primi (in Italian, the first course is actually not the appetizer but the lighter portion of the main meal, usually a pasta) were two pastas: one was a busiate with almond, anchovies, capers and tomatoes, as was recommended to us by the enthusiastic Quebecois couple who sat beside us. The other was an evening special, a pasta made from farro flour, prepared “all a norma” with eggplant, tomato, and pecorino cheese. I preferred the latter, for its al dente texture, spaghetti shape, and knowing that it was made with nutritious farro flour. The eggplant was salty and sweet, the flesh of it was melt-in-your-mouth good. I only wished there was more of it. The dish was on the salty and oily side, but my palate has become less accustomed the the amount of salt that New York restaurants use to really pick up the flavors of the foods and to prevent blandness. I think, as a professional cook, it must be easy to become desensitized to salt because you taste dishes laden with it so many times a night.
One word about the busiate, a long, twisted pasta like someone took a strip of dough and wound it tightly around a skinny pencil: I did not feel the capers or anchovies and I would have liked to more, but then again I mostly left that dish to my friend Olga who was infatuated with it. I did like the small crispy bits of almond–I am a texture fiend and when I get crunchy and smooth together, I swoon!
Somewhere between our antipasto (appetizer) and our primi (it would be primo if we had but one first course, but we had two! hence the plural, prime), waiter Sean helped us find the perfect bottle of wine. I asked him about a couple bottles of red, and from that he knew our price range, and recommended that rather than either of those, we go with a 2006 Odoardi Savuto from Calabria. The region in the south of Italy (the toe of the boot) is not known for its wines, because many of them, as our waiter explained, are subpar or just bad. But if you can sift through and find a great one, they are so well priced for their quality simply because the region is off the radar. This bottle was aromatic, really well balanced, medium bodied, and good company for our food. It was one of the lowest priced bottles on the menu at $44 dollars. It’s always fun to get something even better than anticipated, in both price and flavor.
Finally, our secondo was a porchetta all a romana, with Carolina corn, finger chilies, and purslane. It came with what looked like a plantain chip on top but what was really the crispy skin of the porchetta, another awesome texture variance alongside the meaty, fatty texture of the porchetta itself. The sweet corn and barely spicy chilies were also awesome flavor compliments and the purslane, an edible and citric tasting weed, was mostly a garnish. We also ordered a side of roasted baby carrots with salsa verde, delicious texture (softened with a little bite, still), but also, to me, slightly over salted.
What is porchetta? This is how the restaurant/cafe Porchetta NYC describes it:
“Porchetta is a traditional street food of Central Italy. Sold from a cart or a truck, it is a whole roast pig boned out and stuffed with the liver, heart and other entrails mixed with savory herbs then slow roasted in a wood oven. It is sliced to order and served in a sandwich as a quick treat at the market or at a fair.”
Ours was not in a sandwich and I do not believe we got any of the innards. But that it one way of serving it as an Italian sweet food.
Should we stay or should we go?
With the clearing of all that food, we were still enjoying great conversation, laughs, and the energy of the restaurant. But we hesitated at ordering dessert or more wine, because we were thinking about heading to another bar for a change of scenery. But we clearly all liked the scene there, and it would not have been hard to sway us to say. Almost as if he read my mind, Sean brought us out a complimentary gelato and a mini refill of our wine glasses. It was ten PM and the spot at the bar would not have been filled if we left. His intuitive sense of hospitality kept us in the restaurant, enjoying and laughing, and added a cherry on top of our already seamless, delicious, romantic experience.