Sunday, May 17, 2009

Otto Mania

I have missed spending time in my kitchen lately. If you’ve been following this blog over the past few weeks, you’ll know by now that it’s been a bit of a culinary washout for me this spring, as my cooking endeavors have been eclipsed by a very busy performance season. However, the silver lining in all of this is that this gives me a chance to share some of my favorite New York restaurants with you. One of the first thoughts that races through my mind upon getting called for a gig, after ascertaining whether or not I’m available, is “what restaurants are nearby?” There are certain jobs I particularly enjoy playing here in town, not just for the musical experience or the camaraderie of performing with friends, but also because of the venue’s proximity to favorite restaurants.

I’m having a banner week in that department, as I’ve been playing amazing music with some of my favorite musicians/friends in excellent dining locations. There have been multiple rehearsals on the Upper East Side for two different church concerts in these past few days, putting me a stone’s throw away from the Lexington Luncheonette. I’ve also spent a lot of time at Grace Church down on 10th Street rehearsing Beethoven’s magnificent Missa Solemnis, which has been a true joy to play, especially with so many wonderful friends in the orchestra. I have brought many of those friends with me to Otto, Mario Batali’s casual pizzeria and wine bar. Some might say it’s a little excessive to dine at the same restaurant three times in the space of 30 hours, but it seemed the most natural choice when it was my favorite restaurant within a few blocks of the rehearsal site.

If you happen to find yourself in Greenwich Village with a hankering for thin-crust pizzas, vegetables that sing with purity and surprise, or gelato that will make you swoon, I would urge you to run, not walk, to Otto to satisfy all of those cravings. This informal pizzeria is located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street, just a few steps away from the famous arch to the entrance of Washington Square Park. And do bring your friends, for the menu is packed with one enticement after another, and it is definitely one that encourages sharing.

The wine bar area in front conjures up the mood of an Italian train station. The atmosphere is informal and quick-paced, the perfect place for enjoying a pre-meal glass of prosecco at the bar or sharing antipasti with friends at one of the many high marble-topped tables in the wine bar as you wait for your table. In fact, instead of taking down your name, you are given a “train ticket” with the name of an Italian city, and when your table is ready, your city’s name appears on a big “ARRIVALS” board, just like one you’d find in an Italian train station. I love sitting at the bar, and I often find myself daydreaming of Italy just at the mere sight of any of those names appearing on the board, for I would go back to Ravenna, Modena, or Venezia in a heartbeat. But I digress.

Once you arrive at your table, you may find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the many tantalizing offerings on the menu or by the dizzyingly extensive Italian wine list. Please allow me to guide you through the menu, for it would be my honor to share some of my favorite items with you and be your dining counselor for the experience. I hope you are a person who likes to share food with your dinner companions, because I find this is the best way to enjoy the Otto experience. Even though the place is a pizzeria, I find many of the antipasti and desserts as compelling as the pizzas themselves.

There is an ever-changing list of seasonal vegetable antipasti, all served in little ramekins and just the right size for sharing at least two or three with the other members of your party. Between my multiple visits there this week, I had the pleasure of enjoying fresh English peas topped with pink ribbons of prosciutto, as well as an eggplant caponata that was roasted till meltingly sweet and blended with raisins and pine nuts. I am always tempted by the Sicilian-style cauliflower, roasted with olive oil and tossed with briny olives and capers, and the Tuscan lentils are another favorite. But the real revelation was the spicy broccoli rabe, seasoned with olive oil and hot chili flakes with crumbles of salty ricotta salata to play off the bitter greens, and I was kicking myself for never having ordered it before.

I love the Otto riff on a caprese salad—oven-roasted tomatoes and luscious fresh mozzarella topped with a gorgeous glob of emerald pesto—and this version with its roasted tomatoes ensures that they can serve it year-round. The “Sformata di Parmigiano” is a silky Parmesan custard that has inspired many an eyes-rolling-backward-in-the-head reaction on my part. But the escarole salad with shaved sunchokes and almonds is a must, and that is the one item I ordered all three times this week.

The thin-crusted pizzas are cooked on a griddle, something that caused many New Yorkers to raise their eyebrows when Otto first opened, but I have no quibbles. While there are nearly 25 different toppings to choose from, I prefer the simplest pizzas on the menu. I usually order the classic Margherita pizza, the crispy crust painted with a summer-sweet tomato sauce and adorned with creamy housemade buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. A special pizza this week featured this combination of ingredients plus the addition of grilled ramps, the thin wild leek that has a short growing season in the late spring. And my mouth is still watering at the memory of the classic pizza topped with rosy slices of prosciutto and scattered arugula leaves.

Whatever you order, do make sure to save room for gelato at the end of the meal, for you won't regret it. There is an ever-rotating list of flavors, but one of the staples of the list is the olive oil gelato. While this may sound strange at first, this is quite a sexy creation that is downright voluptuous in its rich mouthfeel and creamy texture. In short, it is not to be missed. You can choose up to three flavors of gelato per order, served with a little spade, or you can opt for one of the special sundaes, called a ‘coppetta’. There is always one featuring that crazy-good olive oil gelato, usually paired with a bright sorbet and some fruit. (A recent offering involved tangerine sorbetto, candied kumquats and a crunchy fennel-seed brittle. Whoa.) Another favorite always on the list is the Black&White, a duo of tangy crème fraiche gelato and homey milk chocolate chip gelato served side by side in a glass, drizzled with a chocolate sauce and topped with toasted hazelnuts and a generous dollop of caramel-laced whipped cream.

But on my last of three visits this week, I was totally charmed by the banana caramel coppetta: fresh banana gelato paired with an exquisite salty caramel gelato, sprinkled with a brown butter pecan crumble topping and decorated with caramelized banana slices and a rosette of mascarpone cream. This was accompanied by a beautifully strong cappuccino capped with an impressive cloud of foam, and it was the perfect partner for my banana caramel bonanza.

There is definitely something to be said for making music alongside people with whom you also enjoy discovering great food. One can certainly bond with one’s fellow musicians during the rehearsal process, but I love having an opportunity to strengthen that connection outside of the rehearsal room, especially when the connection is deepened over conversation while enjoying great food and wine together. It felt quite therapeutic to pour my heart out through my violin during the Beethoven performance last night, especially as I had poured my heart out in a slightly-different-but-not-unrelated way during mouthwatering meals with friends right beforehand. These past few days have made me all the more grateful for amazing friends who happen to be my musical colleagues as well. And thanks to Otto, my taste buds have been smiling the whole time.

1 Fifth Avenue (at 8th Street)

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