If you like Italian food, and you have the resources for a reasonably expensive meal and you’ve never been to La Pietra Cucina, then you must rectify that situation right away.
I’m not going to go so far as to say La Pietra is the best Italian restaurant in the city (it’s too weird for that distinction) but it is the most original. Some of the food here — particularly the pastas — will put you in that yummy-yummy rapture place. That place where you make little grunts, snorts and ululations ulululations of non-verbal approbation. I love that place.
Chef Bruce Logue trained at Babbo — the Greenwich Village restaurant that turned Mario Batali into a superstar. If you’ve ever eaten at Babbo, you will recognize both the spirit of edgy hominess as well as some the dishes. But Logue is no copycat: his food shows a personality all his own, which is why I have appreciated (if not particularly liked) the several near-misses I’ve eaten here. I keep going back to see what he’s up to.
Set in the too-big Peshing Point space that was MidCity Cuisine (and Angelo & Maxie’s before that), La Pietra takes a new crack at warming up this sterile square footage that would have been a bank lobby had it gone looking for a tenant in 1985. Cameron Stewart Design of Charleston has come up with, well, I’m not quite sure what they’ve come up with.
The Web site claims “the interior exudes warmth with comfortable style. Bathed in earthy tones ranging from the Pompeian red upholstered walls to the gold velvet armchairs and rich brown leather banquettes, the dining room atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming.”
Relaxed and welcoming if you’re Catherine di Medici. I might call the design motif “Renaissance cruelty,” with its air of blood-red opulence and its scary portraits of bejeweled and feathered women in poofy gowns giving the cold fisheye. “Don’t you dare eat that pasta,” they seem to be saying.
Buzz off, ladies. The pastas are the best thing going here. Hand-cut fettuccine comes with cubes of slow-cooked rabbit, pancetta and a flurry of fried parsnip chips that you mix into the noodles for that ephemeral crunch-sog texture of a really good bowl of cereal. An ideally seasoned and concentrated meat jus (coating but not sticky) melds the flavors into one great meta-flavor.
The black spaghtetti with rock shrimp, scallions and hot calabrese sausage is also quite the mouthful of omigod, but I will point out this a reworked Babbo dish and the version I had in New York came out steaming hot — the right temperature for the red oil of a sauce. The pasta at La Pietra (as well as an otherwise great chickpea and octopus soup) needed an eddy of steam to bring the flavors home.
And speaking of calabrese sausage, I love the appetizer of sausage “dip” (pictured above) with sauteed vegetable spears to swipe through. Once I ran out of vegetable spears, I found the house grissini breadsticks (made with so much parmesan they seem on the verge of coming out as cheese straws) did the job. When I had no more breadsticks, my index finger jumped right in. That good.
So I wish I’ve found some entrees to like better. Pretty little medallions of lamb sirloin set over roasted cauliflower came with a tiara of fried parsnip strands that were just annoying in this context. Again, the food was too cold and sauceless when we got it. I’m thinking the ladies in the portraits would approve of some nice cloches to cover the plates on their way to the tables.
A fish brodetto with “shrimp gnudi” (clever little plugs of springy, tender shrimp mousse) and sea beans features a sea-deep tomato broth with, again, perfect pitch. But it had no presence in the bowl. The three kinds of fish cubes seemed indistinguishable from each other and the gnudi, and the thick broth had too many bits of limp vegetable and whatnot milling about. I really appreciate Logue’s instinct to keep the food’s rustic bona fides, but I think he could have fancied this up a bit (strained the broth, served larger chunks of fish) and had a peerless fish soup.
Our dessert, called “Huckleberry bavarese with dark toffee” turned out to be a martini glass filled with straited goo. Not my thing.
But those pastas. Madonna. I can’t think about them and not want to start planning my next visit.
Have you been? Do you find the food exciting, if a little uneven, as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts.