Everybody knows that Manhattan is the capital of French cooking in America, a borough home to roughly five times as many first-rate grand restaurants, cafés and brasseries as the rest of the United States put together. If the limit on your MasterCard is up to it, you can taste seafood as exquisite as anything you would experience in France, enjoy stunningly creative cuisine prepared by modern masters, or eat in brasseries and bistros so cunningly patinated that even lowlife Parisians would have trouble differentiating them from the real thing. There is cheap French food and chic French food, rustic French food and French food so breathtakingly expensive that a not-extravagant dinner for two actually does cost as much as a roundtrip ticket to Charles de Gaulle.
But the New York French being French, in August they are on vacation too — in Lyon, in Nice, in the Alps, at their mother’s old farm in the Gers or at a vacation cottage in Brittany. In New York French restaurants, August is the month when the foie gras en gelée you found so delightful in May may take on the tang of lime Jell-O, when the funky steak-frites at down-market bistros become rather too funky. Usually, I can think of nothing better in life than to luxuriate in a four-hour lunch at a New York French restaurant, but in August the ritual turns into an ordeal. In August in New York, an intelligent man’s fancy turns to Italian food instead.
Actually, a lot of the Italian guys are also off in August, tooling around Modena or the Maremma in fast cars, but August tends to be a pretty good month for Italian food anyway, the time when basil and tomatoes are at their peak, the fresh mozzarella is at its most luscious, and cured meats have that extra bit of added age. The tepid temperatures at which most Italian food seems to be at its best are seasonally appropriate. Thinnish, hot-weather Italian white wines like Orvieto and Vermentino are fantastically appealing. And although I could probably list a hundred or so things that can go wrong with a simple insalata caprese, the ready-to-wear aspects of Italian cooking that can seem so maddening in April make perfect sense in the sultriest days of summer, and everything seems to come out okay.
Afternoons at August, a new trattoria on a stretch of Bleecker Street clogged with minimalist boutiques and Sex and the City tours packed with women in designer-knockoff heels searching for their inner Carrie, the leafy yet air-conditioned patio fills up with models and young mothers drawn to thin, wood-grilled pizzas, grilled fish, dainty salads, and improbably delicious cheeseburgers served on wafers of Sullivan Street focaccia bread. When the sun sets, Jonathan Waxman’s crew (Waxman himself is out of town, of course) serves impeccable squid salad with black chickpeas, spicy linguine with cherry tomatoes and shrimp, and grilled steak with roasted new potatoes at Barbuto, a largely open-air restaurant tucked beneath the Industria photo studios in the far West Village. The majestic, smoking hulks wrestled from ancient coal ovens at Lombardi’s, blistered and blackened, shrieking with the goodness of fresh garlic and fresher mozzarella, become the most desirable things in the world when the weather gets steamy. Root beer and pizza at Grimaldi’s under the Brooklyn Bridge? A no-brainer. A boiled-beef sandwich at the Lower East Side wine bar ’inoteca may seem counterintuitive when the weather pushes three digits, but it is fantastic washed down with a foaming beaker of fizzy red Lambrusco.
The most exciting food I ate in New York this time around was at Alto, a new, expensive midtown restaurant from chef Scott Conant, whose l’Impero was the Italian restaurant that introduced New Yorkers to the joys of grilled goat liver. Conant’s cooking at Alto riffs on the food of Alto Adige, that bit of land beneath the Brenner Pass where the towns look like Bavarian villages and the cuisine hews closer to the cabbage and smoked meats of Austria than it does to peninsular Italian cooking. And his cooking at Alto is spectacular, delicate and garnished with deeply flavored herb foams, inflected with the aromas of game, the tartness of sauerkraut, the woodsy musk of wild mushrooms. (A ragout of these mushrooms with summer truffles and polenta was spectacular.) Some food people I know consider the elegant dining room to be too stuffy and think the jackets-required dress code is an ordeal, but the cooking is as nuanced, as detailed, as anything the French guys are doing now.
Still, summer in New York this year, as it always does, ended up as a survey of the many and various restaurants of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Actually, Batali’s restaurant empire is large enough and various enough that I often find myself eating three or four meals a week at his restaurants, even when it doesn’t happen to be August — even when I don’t manage to make it to either the flagship restaurant Babbo or the Italian seafood house Esca for David Pasternack’s crudo (Italian sashimi). I am fond of the sharpness of Batali’s sensibility, his love of strong, sweet-sour flavors, the house-cured meats and the extraordinary freedom he gives his chefs, who cook as if they were running their own restaurants. I loved the fried duck egg with Spanish tuna ham at the Spanish-leaning Casa Mono, and the spicy ham at the Provençal-style Bistro du Vent. I thought the Italian headcheese and the sopressata at Lupawere even better than they usually are, and the squash-blossom fritters, the gnocchi with sausage and the fried salt cod with cherry tomatoes were tremendous. And sitting for the third time in a week at Otto, guzzling Lambrusco, pounding down salami stuffed with cured lard, little bowls of roasted cauliflower and briny, cracker-thin grilled pizza that had been mounded with clams still in their shells, I realized that I had found the perfect restaurant for the season. There still hasn’t been a date set for the opening of Batali’s Los Angeles restaurant, but I for one can’t wait.
Alto, 520 Madison Ave., New York, (212) 308-1099.
August, 359 Bleecker St., New York, (212) 929-4774.
Barbuto, 775 Washington St., New York, (212) 924-9700.
Bistro du Vent, 411 W. 42nd St., New York, (212) 239-3060.
Casa Mono, 52 Irving Pl., New York, (212) 253-2773.
Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, 19 Old Fulton St., Brooklyn, (718) 858-4300.
’inoteca, 98 Rivington St., New York, (212) 614-0473.
Lombardi’s, 32 Spring St., New York, (212) 941-7994.
Lupa, 170 Thompson St., New York, (212) 982-5089.
Otto Enoteca and Pizzeria, 1 Fifth Ave., New York, (212) 995-9559.