August 12, 1991 | Vintage Insatiable

Gardens of Delight 

          Of course it’s maddening. Barolo is like a mean-tempered woman with great legs or a handsome young millionaire with no brain. That garden…there is nothing quite like it in Manhattan. Barbetta’s garden is an old-world romance. And the greenhouse glory in the heart of Rockefeller Center, shared by the Sea Grill, Savories, and the American Festival Café, is a seasonal thrill, but it’s open to the transient gawk. Barolo’s august courtyard is secret…an unimagined astonishment beyond a grand sweep of restaurant with its sedate entrance on West Broadway. This gracious square between low-slung apartment buildings must be a relic of a time when New York City was not priced by the foot, and yet it feels like Rome or Athens, with its precisely pruned cherry tress stretching toward the sky. For two weeks this past spring, they were ruffled in fragrant blooms till a sudden chill sent every petal aflutter into the air.


          Am I carrying on suspiciously about botanical matters? You guessed it. I’m straining to postpone the woeful news. Barolo’s prices are far more ambitious than its kitchen. Still, I find myself willing to linger here, even for dinner. Built by Paolo Secondo and Pietro Pagano, who own La Foccacia on Bank Street, a money machine name I Tre Merli a few doors north on West Broadway, and both feeding stations at Trump Tower, Barolo does seem less tentative than when it first surfaced -- handsomely modeled in gold leaf, with halogen sconces like so many riding stirrups. Even someone as fussy as I may be so enchanted by the stage set that food flaws seem to blur.

          Sip a pleasant Giacosa Dolcetto, and don’t deny yourself the rosemary-flecked focaccia while it’s hot. Something in the antipasti gathered from a tempting display in the dining room will surely please you -- the wonderful sweet-and-sour onions, perhaps, and the wild mushrooms or the small ovals of mozzarella. Avoid the thin, overcooked swordfish and the tasteless veal chop. Expect watery white beans on most everything, and a stinginess of lobster in the lobster-and-avocado salad.

          Is the service a bit slow? Waiters do tend to disappear. Another Dolcetto and some fresh focaccia dim that fret. You may have to wrestle the busboy for the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. He’s been programmed to keep them moving -- the pepper mill and grated Parmesan too. If he were to hover less vigilantly, you’d probably grab the handsome cruets and leap over the hedge, never to be seen again.

          Pasta may be the pacifier here. Recently we loved the evening’s special risotto, salty but good, and the linguine with pesto, potatoes, and string beans. For late supper another night, two of us shared four half-orders of pasta (thoughtfully offered on separate plates   -- inanely, all at once on a too tiny table), slightly soggy but zesty fusilli all’amatriciana, garlicky orecchiette with bitter broccoli di rape, big agnolottie plump with spinach and ricotta in tomato sauce, and slightly bland white and green tagliolini with stracchino and cheese and pepper. With three courses and wine, even a pasta dinner for two might still hit $100.

          Fruit pies comes in a sweet, cakey crust. A delicate, lemony panna cotta, a scantily bruléed crème brulée, is delicious, not so the humble flan or an inept napoleon with pastry cream and berries.

Barolo, 398 West Broadway


          I confess, a rickety garden table beside an iris defiant in a patch of urban dirt is enough to make me blither. But the photo this spring in “Hot Line” of the slightly thrift-shoppy garden behind Eze made it look like a Monet. Granted, it’s not Giverny. But I love it anyway -- the small fish pond, the birches and the Japanese maple, the brass frog and the eternal gurgle, the magnolias and gladiolas.

          Moviegoers bound for the nineplex next door can stop by before the flick for drinks and hors d’oeuvre at the bar -- crusty rare grilled quail with couscous or a sprightly pizzette and a saffron-scented mussel soup. Lunch in this sweet little retreat is a bargain: just $7 for the bird, $7.50 for the pizzette or the satisfying Corsican salad --white beans, shoelaces of zucchini and beets, olives, tomato and arugula -- all zestily dressed and served with crusty warmed bread. Even the seafood salad -- critters carefully cooked, enough for summer lunch -- is just $10. Having squandered so few calories, so few dollars, why not spring for the house’s beloved chocolate cake layered with homemade ice cream or a lush frozen cappuccino mousse.

          Mindful of the economy, chef-owner Gina Zarrilli has discarded the prix fixe for a more permissive à la carte menu (with pretheater dinner at $35). But one evening’s soggy soft-shell crab seems rather chintzy, even at a cut-rate $7.50. Gnocchi with pesto are solid and earthy. But mustard-crusted salmon, moist salmis of duck, and rack of lamb with thyme and garlic-onion jam are Zarrilli at her best.

          The chef’s loyalists are full of raves for her bold way with Mediterranean flavors. And some see this stark townhouse as quite beautiful. “It’s romantic,” one of my guests assures me, “like the dim corridor of an old hotel in a small French inn.” Though I find it somber (tonight the threat of rain has banished us indoors), with only an occasional mirror on bare walls, I, too, admire Zerilli’s flavor-assertive ways. I’m still hoping success will give her a budget for some art that’s colorful or frivolous.

Eze, 254 West 23rd Street


          Now that ABC-TV’s high-priced mouths and opera divas and the brass from Penthouse are vying with culture vultures and the neighborhood for dinner spots at Vince & Eddie’s, it takes clout and cunning to score a seat in the tiny garden -- capacity, twenty. But at lunch, on a day when the city is neither a sauna nor a tropical rainstorm, the 150-year-old maple offers just enough shade and you don’t have to be Barbara Walters or Marilyn Horne or Jessye Norman to stake a claim outdoors.

          This is a true native garden, scratching for survival in its cramped cubicle, the tree clearly a miracle, with an ancient wisteria vine bought upstate for $150 and carted home in one piece, clutching a trellis that seems a bit bare. “We tried hanging grapes,” co-sachem Eddie Schoenfeld confides, “but they didn’t look good.”

          Lunch could be a couple of starters ($3.95 and up) -- lovely mussel or corn chowder, fried oysters on anchovy toast, or silken gravlax swirled into rosy blossoms with salad greens and crisp fried celery leaves. Generous, eat-it’s-good-for-you sandwiches ($8.75 to $10.75) -- grilled tuna with chive mayonnaise and coleslaw, or ham and cheddar with honey mustard oozing richness -- come with house-made chips. Lobster salad with onion rings is a summery tumble of silk and crunch, and Vince & Eddie’s mythic roasted chicken on escarole and cabbage is just $12.50.

          Upper-bracket New Yorkers and everyday folk have fallen for this cleverly connived grandma’s-kitchen nook, with its passion for garlic, brisket on Tuesday, and mashed-potato nostalgia, though now and then complaints about attitude filter through. For me, it’s worth juggling my dinner hour and lingering over homemade ice cream and great plum tart. When Vince and Eddie open Fishin’ Eddies soon a few blocks uptown, perhaps they’ll draw some of the crush with them. Life on the West Side is definitely tasting better.

Vince & Eddie’s, 70 West 68th Street (721-0068). Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight, Sundays 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.


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