May 24, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

My Secret Garden: Lugo Caffè

Consulting chef Sam Hazen stands at the entrance Saturday night as we arrive sans reservation. Photo: Steven Richter
Consulting chef Sam Hazen stands at the entrance Saturday night as we arrive sans reservation. Photo: Steven Richter

        I couldn’t get any of my usual reviewing dinner pals to go to Lugo Caffè.  As soon as I said “Penn Plaza near Madison Square Garden,” they would ask “what else is on your list?”  Then dramaturge nephew Gabe and wife Mia came to town from La Jolla, not so hip to Manhattan geography. I spot them happily settled at the bar, widescreen video on either side, “La Dolce Vita” motto overhead, all set for a glamorous New York evening with Aunt Gael.  We retreat to the quieter back room with its wall of wine and frieze of stills from Italian movies, Marcello Mastroianni staring down at us.

I loved this excessive meatball pizza; so did Mia and Gabe from LaJolla. Photo: Steven Richter

        And please don’t accuse me of throwing these innocents to the wolves. Tao and Rue 57 veteran chef Sam Hazen had emailed me that he’d done a great job shaking up the kitchen as the consultant here. I expected to eat well. I don’t know what was before Sam arrived. But what we’re sharing tonight is mostly delicious Italianish food for New Yorkers - excessive, occasionally a bit over-the-top, as in the good but not-very-Italian meatball pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, roasted tomato and the vaguely annoying sweetness of caramelized onions.  I’m surprised to see the chef here on a Saturday night, stopping by to wow our guests with reports of athlete sightings. New York Giants. New Jersey Devils. A special thrill for hockey stalwart Mia. (Yes, they do play women’s hockey in San Diego.) 

The crusty pork shank you carve yourself at table is a must. Photo: Steven Richter

        And just as Hazen had boasted to lure me here, the huge and crunchy pork shank, layered with juicy morsels of pig under crisped fat skin, is a winner. It arrives on a not quite large enough wooden board for us to carve at table,  scattering garlands of chopped peppers both sweet and hot. Enough for four, maybe enough for six. Certainly too much for us, after marvelous balloon meatballs and the platter of prosciutto and house made mozzarella with fig jam – sent by the chef – plus crispy baby artichokes with tangy lemon aioli, tuna tartare and a trio of vegetable antipasti we ordered and two pastas we’d already divided. 

Small bowls of veggies are 3 for $10, but might be too salty to eat. Photo: Steven Richter

        Menus with so many different categories are brilliantly designed to trick the hungry into ordering more. Still, the pricing is gentle: $4 for a vegetable tasting bowl, entrees $24 to $29, desserts starting at $7. Not that I would have skipped the first-rate bucatini alla matriciana, remarkably al dente (though our eager and responsive server mistakenly warned me it was homemade and could not be al dente).

After pizza, pasta and these meatballs comes that pork shank. Photo: Steven Richter

        Perhaps I could have lived without my share of the good-enough orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe, saved it for another time to keep room for another chunk of that pig. Fruity Dolcetto d’Alba, just $35 on a list of Vini della Casa is perfect with all these show-off flavors.

        Be warned, there is less pleasure in ahi tuna tartare, overwhelmed by cured tomato. And I sent back the eggplant caponata and the Brussels sprouts that tasted as if someone had salted them twice. Mia chooses the tiramisu. It isn’t really bad, just a tad boring, not enough like the best tiramisu of Venice.  But I’d skip the slightly gummy marscapone (sic) cheesecake.

Arugula sprouts add a nice freshness to linguine alla vongole. Photo: Steven Richter

        A week later, I have no problem at all persuading the Road Food Warrior we should return to taste more. We share a marvelous whole leaf romaine Caesar and textbook-perfect linguine alla vongole with arugula sprouts. The house stocks Clausthaler, his favorite non-alcoholic beer (Click here to read the results of our tasting of alcohol-free brews) and skirt steak is one of his favorite cuts. Tonight’s is chewy and rare and very good once we’ve cut away the mahogany edge that tastes overly salty from its marinade.

Provolone and oil of preserved truffle made this mushroom pizza a greasy monster. Photo: Steven Richter

       I’m not happy with the excessive oiliness of the wild mushroom pizza. Hazen, caught standing at the door as we arrive with no reservation, stops by our table later and defends the pizza, saying it’s oily from the provolone cheese and truffle preserved in oil. I guess we’ll be trying the Margherita next time, even if Lugo remains our own secret “garden,” along with the sports fans and concert goers filling the terrace tables tonight.

One Penn Plaza just east of Eighth Avenue. 212 760 2700. Weekdays 8 am to 11 pm, Saturdays noon to 11pm

The Carbonara Reward

Tonight the kitchen turns out remarkable hanger steak with escarole tart. Photo: Steven Richter

        Naples and New York City are on the same latitude, it notes on the menu at Giuliano, by way of explaining chef Giuliano Matarese’s culinary journey.  That doesn’t exactly account for his marvelous way with spaghetti carbonara, the Roman dish that won fans at his previous stand, La Carbonara, a cozy 14th Street joint priced for tough times by Enrico Malta and Tom Bifulco, the duo behind a collection of successful trattorias including this one. 

It’s a pleasant no-frills room looking out at Ninth Avenue traffic. Photo: Steven Richter

        So when chef Roberto Passon, whose food I have raved about, left this tight little storefront on Ninth Avenue bearing his name, the bosses moved Matarese uptown. His rich carbonara is reason enough to come now, although the staff can be rude and neglectful when the space fills up. One clown races around the room, twirling on his heels, gazing above us, leaving the other to do everything. That means the worker bee is too busy to take our order. Frustrating, but not really fatal since we four have time to catch up.

The chef’s Bolognese does nothing for fettuccine. Photo: Steven Richter

        What might be fatal if you’re a purist, especially one from Naples, is that his red sauces don’t work at all. The San Marzano tomato sauce lies heavily on the spaghetti chitarra and the Bolognese meat ragu does nothing much for fettuccine. Eggplant parmigiana heaped into a soup bowl is a strange mess. And baked clams with crab meat au gratin are a mistake.

I’ll be back for tortino di riso – the sensational risotto pancake. Photo: Steven Richter

        But I’d risk all – the tight quarters, the disdain, the modest attempts at décor – to sit at one of these brown-paper-topped tables and have Matarese's tortino di riso all to myself.  One of the best things about risotto can be the leftovers sautéed like a pancake the next day. And this one is ambrosial with sweet Italian sausage and smoked scamorza cheese.  The garlicky trofie alla vongole is fine too, with its firm rolled tubes of pasta, clams and broccoli rabe.

Rolled trofie pasta with clams and broccoli rabe is worth ordering too. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m equally impressed by the red-wine braised short ribs on a rich bed of creamy truffle-scented potatoes stuffed into cannelloni. And I have to agree with the professional beef handler across from me that Guiliano’s marinated hanger steak, served with an escarole tart and roasted cherry tomatoes, is seriously good. And at such gentle prices: pastas $12 to $15, entrees $18 to $20. But will the kitchen hold steady? I’m mellow now with my generous carafe of Barbera that has lasted through the night. Alas, so many lapses don’t promise anything, but I can imagine stopping by again one night when the pre-theater crowd clears to see if the bistecca is consistent and for another go at that risotto cake.

741 Ninth Avenue corner of 50th Street. 212 582 5599 Daily noon to 11:30 pm.