September 2010

Walking into Maialino feels a lot like being in Italy.  There is a decent-sized bar area where you can get  wine by the glass or quartino plus a wide variety of small dishes to eat at the bar or at any one of the surrounding marble-topped tables.  These types of tables seem to be cropping up more and more.  Mario Batali first introduced them at Otto and most recently at Eataly.  At Maialino, however, Danny Meyer doesn’t want you standing so chairs are tucked into each of the tables, making it a comfortable place to drink and eat and generally watch all the action around you.

There’s a lot of things to look at — a young male chef carefully cutting paper-thin slices of prosciutto, a female chef putting the finishing touches on a dessert while slicing freshly made foccacio to fill the bread baskets.  There’s the sound of corks popping and of the espresso machine spouting its final drop of coffee into a tiny cup.  The conversation level is “energetic” and so is the pace of the waitstaff.

We had been to Maialino once before consuming the spaghetti alla carbonara that many a foodie had been raving about (most notably Ruth Reichl) along with plates of prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella.  While lunch was good but a tad pricey we wanted to see how they handled dinner so we went back.

We walked in a few minutes early for our 9 p.m. Saturday night reservation, made our way to the bar and ordered two quartinos of Chianti.  At $19 each, we probably should have sprung for a bottle since price wise it would have only been $5 more but we were trying to pace ourselves.

The restaurant was very crowded.  So crowded in fact that we waited nearly 20 minutes for a table to free up.  The maitre’d kept coming over to apologize for the wait and we assured him it was no big deal since we were happy nibbling on some decent breadsticks and drinking our wine. 

By the time we finally sat down to dinner it was close to 9:30 p.m. and we were pretty hungry.  Pretty hungry in our house means we were going to be ordering many dishes.  Many dishes at Maialino = mega bucks.  Here’s my gripe, while the place itself is fairly casual (think urban trattoria rather than rustic trattoria) and the menu does a good job of sticking with fairly simple trattoria-like dishes (think lasagna, antipasta, grilled meats), the portions are also a tad small.

I know this restaurant is in the smack of New York City, on the first floor no less of the very fashionable-at-the-moment Gramercy Park Hotel but still.  I would like a break from these types of prices.

But let me talk about the food and remind my readers it was a Saturday night, (date night) and prime time (after 9 p.m.) in New York City.  Our waiter greeted us and then told us he was already out of two very important dishes: the suckling pig and strangely Parmigiano Reggiano.  How could this be?  Even funnier was the fact that  when I woke up that morning I thought, “I bet they run out of the suckling pig.”  Why did I think that?  Because that’s exactly what I had wanted to eat. I looked at Lynn and sighed and proceeded to order.

To start Lynn and I both had a serving of prosciutto from Parma and an oozing glob of buffalo mozzarella.  It was very very good.  Next up a chicken liver crostini followed by a fried artichoke dish with an anchovy dipping sauce.  While the dipping sauce was decent, the fried artichokes were brought to the table as a nearly inedible burnt offering.  I picked at the dish, Lynn ate them anyway.

Since we had finished our quartinos of Chianti while waiting for a table, we ordered two more trying some Vernaccia this time.  While we were drinking the white wine, the table next to us was served a single ravioli that when pierced revealed an oozing egg and cheese mixture. Looking at the dish, I summoned our waiter and pointed.

“Bring us one of those, too, when you get a chance.”

Tout suite, the ravioli was brought to us.  We shared the dish and it was damn good, but truthfully we’ve been seeing many versions of this dish around town.  The best we’ve had to date…sorry Danny Meyer, was most definitely at Saul.

After the shared ravioli (which truthfully I thought would be comped to us for the long wait for a table, but alas, no it was included on the bill at the whopping price of $15 FOR A SINGLE RAVIOLI),  we split an order of handmade malfatti noodles with a suckling pig ragu with arugula.  Yes, it was good.  Yes, the portion was small (made even smaller by the fact that we shared it).  I’ve decided I’m not going to even mention the price tag because it was really outrageous.

We ordered a bottle of red wine from the Friuli-Venezia region which paired nicely with our next course: three decent-sized lamb chops plated with red onions that had been slowly simmered in balsamic vinegar making them melt-in-your mouth soft with a sweetness to boot. 

Bringing the meal to a finish, Lynn and I decided to share a cheese plate featuring a nearly overripe Gorgonzola and two other equally ripe cheeses which now elude me.  But we weren’t done yet since I had whispered to the waiter that someone was having a birthday (not me) and a slice of peach and blueberry tart made it to the table adorned with a single birthday candle. We blew out the candle together thinking about the meal.  

Service while attentive seemed to struggle with a big Saturday night crowd.  On more than one occasion, I saw waitstaff bring entrees to tables that had already moved on to dessert.  It also struck me as odd that they had run out of certain key dishes as I mentioned before.  (Surely someone could have run over to the newly opened Eataly to pick up some real Parmesan cheese, no? )  That said, I think Maialino is a sure thing for lunch….less inviting and way more expensive for dinner. 

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