The Princedom of Pasta
Orsini’s is like an Italian Lover. Unsubtly sexy, petulant, demanding…an irresistible con… a transparent liar… expensive. No wonder women court it. No wonder I adore it. We arrive uptight Katharine Hepburns and are transformed into Sensuous Women.
Orsini’s, like your hotly romantic Italian lover, simply must not be taken too seriously. Don’t let the outrageous prices make you tense. Love and gnocchi are only a game. And the cast of characters here is uniquely dazzling. You could pay as much for an evening on Broadway with only half the dazzle. Lunch upstairs draws Gloria Vanderbilt and Arnold Scaasi; David Merrick with Candy Bergen in a mechanic’s jumpsuit and Malibu tan; Social Moth Jerome Zipkin with Penelope Tree (“So skinny, so used by everyone,” Women’s Wear quotes one sensitive waiter); Golda Meir, Sinatra, Princess grace, Chagall, Roy Wilkins, the most beautiful women, the most stunning blacks . . . one Afro’d beauty in sharkskin and chains. The dress is peacock, narcissus, fetishist and custom-made ersatz thrift shop. Even celebrities are impressed. One day Yul Brynner looked around and poked his wife. “Over there,” he hissed— “Mastroianni.” And at that moment Mastroianni turned to his companion: “Look, it’s Yul Brynner.”
Armando Orsini, solid and handsome Playboy Prince of Pasta, kisses hands, kisses fingertips, kisses cheeks… assigning the siliconed beauties and the faithful to front tables in the flattering filtered day that grimes grayly through the thick of 55th Street. Oh, cruel twist of status. Harper’s Bazaar publisher Gordon Morford still seethes over the Orsini myopia… that hideous day brother Elio gave Morford an ignominious station mid-dining-room with a blunt: “All the other tables are taken.” Morford watched as moments later Elio led a stunning young girl to a status love-seat up front. It was Morford’s date for lunch. Imagine—nameless beauty before power and gold. Morford is still in a snit. But I find the Orsini fratelli’s old-fashioned vulnerability wonderfully refreshing.
If I may bring Yeats up to date on Manhattan mores: Only God will love you for yourself alone . . . cheers for the man who loves me for my golden hair. I cannot think of a single French headwaiter in town who would even twitch an eyebrow over a creamy thigh if Sol Hurok were waddling in its wake. No such ennui at Orsini’s. Shortly before three, a slim and near-naked French beauty came alive and into the room (Orsini lunchers often do arrive at three looking langorous and aglow as if they have just rolled out of silken sheets and rushed in for a fettuccine breakfast). Her only garment was a clinging veil, slashed so that the most discreet gesture revealed two-thirds of her right breast. Three waiters stood lined up about six feet from her starboard nipple, blissfully stunned. A high mark in ingenuous enthusiasm.
Well, there are other senses to feed. As publisher John Fairchild pointedly notes, “I don’t go there to eat the people.” You must. The minute you begin to equate narcissus, silk sheets, knuckle kisses and $30 lunches-for-two with great food . . . you are slated for great disappointment.
No one goes to Orsini’s for the food. One goes for the people, the mood. One goes to eat, casually, with appetite . . . as one might go home to lunch, if home were a handsome old summer villa outside Rome with bare brick walls, country tile-topped tables, wicker loveseats (too cramped for adult males, cozy for lovers), daisies in ceramic pots; meaningless paintings, dark and slashed, pulled out of an attic; a scattering of Roman artifacts, and windows filled with the kind of scraggly beloved plants tended by housewives with green thumbs.
So…home for lunch. Oscar de la Renta is dieting. What can he eat? Raw meat, Armando Orsini urges—filet, sliced very thin, like prosciutto, with lemon, olive oil and fresh cracked pepper. Not on the menu, but…every day for the next three months Oscar fights those ugly bulges with braciola, $5.50—at dinner $6.50. Then one day, trim and beautiful, Oscar simply disappears. Back to sauce it up at La Grenouille, no doubt. Orsini shrugs. He’ll be back. The point is: the menu is only the beginning. If you want a reprise of that wonderful sauce you had at Porto Ercole this summer, you have only to ask.
And if you care, obsessively or even just mildly, about food, why not stick to pasta. That’s what the gym-trim ladies eat: fettuccine, usually properly al dente, sometimes a bit overdone, tossed with butter and raw egg in a scorched Revere Ware skillet at tableside. With, predictably, that inevitable gesture of front-room favoritism: Marylou Whitney’s noodles are sprinkled with parmigiana grated before her very eyes. The back-room folk get flurries from a steel bowl, nearly as fresh, no doubt, but it’s the indulgence that counts. If not fettuccine, risotto then, or linguine or bucatini alla puttanesca (named for the sisterhood of easy virtue). With your pasta, a salad of tartly dressed rugola, sandy or not as the kitchen variously offers, with wine in carafe, Soave Montresor ($2.50 the half-liter)…a modest little lunch that can’t possibly distract you from a lover, confidante or the passing Satyricon …or separate you from more than $18 for two.
At one lunch gnocchi to share were ordered al pesto ($3.75). Not everyone appreciates these clumpy little potato dumplings as I do, and at least nine unsympathetic confréres of my lunch escort later complained about the amazing lingerability of his garlic trail . . . it seems the fiercely demonic perfume of that basil, parsley, pine nut, garlic, oil, parmigiana and pecorino mash followed him for hours. The spinach salad ($3.75) with purple slivers of cabbage, mushrooms and bacon was exquisite. And I can see the case for veal piccata ($4) served as Orsini’s does it, two virginal slices, thin and fork-tender, chaste of browning, in a discreet lemon butter. But I feel slightly suicidal tasting the pâté della casa ($1.50), two oval mounds with a faint overripe flavor. The zuppa spinaci e uova ($1.25) tasted like bits of spinach and egg drop in MBT broth...a generous grating of parmigiana helped immensely. (Parmigiana is to mediocre Italian cooking as sour cream is to Russian, I suspect…there’s almost nothing it doesn’t enhance.) The pollo alla scarpariello ($4.50) was a vastly unmemorable marriage of overcooked chicken, mushrooms and canned artichoke in a spicy sauce.
At another lunch we shared canolicchi al tonno ($4). My demanding companion, New York’s wineman William Clifford, thought it slightly reprehensible that our fat macaroni was not adorned with fresh tuna. And it did taste like something tossed together ad lib at home (zestier, of course, with fresh gratings of cheese). But depending upon the home, that is not entirely derogative. The risotto Ammiraglia ($4), tossed with clams, mussels and shrimp, was mushy, clearly overcooked. And yet the risotto served with the osso buco ($4.50) was perfect. The veal shank itself was cooked to the point of disintegration with not the slightest flavor to distract from its unseemly state. Arriving early, Mr. Clifford chose a Bolla Recioto Amarone ($8) and asked that it be decanted, a kind of instant artificial respiration. “Decanter” was not a word in the waiter’s vocabulary. But finally, in the triumph, a “fiasco” (carafe) was produced for our lusty Bolla. Orsini’s wine list seems to touch upon more regions of Italy than most . . . but clearly nobody makes a fuss about the grape here. The service is more country villa than urban palazzo, not ultra-polished or fully bilingual, but pleasant and seemingly concerned. A waiter who spilled a few drops of water on the table seemed genuinely dismayed and apologetic. Lunch with no drinks, half a bottle of Verdicchio, the Bolla, tips and tax was $31.62.
Downstairs at dinner is so Old Black Magic—red velvet, wrought iron, muted chandeliers, shaded candles—it is impossible to see who is tucked into the shadows. And that is sexy, too. If upstairs is a Roman Spring, downstairs is That Cosmopolitan Girl’s Fantasy Manhattan. Nothing is spared except, grazie a Dio, gypsy violins. The waiters seem more elegant in the dark, twisting and dodging to maneuver tableside service in the crowded aisle, remembering without reminder who ordered what. And Armando is more heroic in black tie and ruffled white as he stalks his shadowed principality, eyes darting, scolding, now correcting a tilt of candle shade, or overseeing the swift portioning of the cannelloni.
There was the smell of Sterno ladled into warmers from 42-ounce tomato cans and good Italian bread on the table, white and whole wheat (75 cents per person). Mozzarella in carrozza ($2.75), a glorious Italian version of grilled cheese sandwich, was a promising and hearty beginning. The appetizer sampler ($3.50) was enormous, a pleasing choice of the good and the mundane—tuna, sardine, chickpeas and white beans in a zesty vinaigrette, tiny canned mushrooms, excellent salami. Scampi Orsini ($2.75) were woebegone and pale in pools of herb-scented oil, but the baked clams ($2.75) were moist, cavalierly garlicked, and good.
The fettuccine Alfredo ($5.75), tossed tableside, was fresh, rich and good, though not as creamy as the Kultur Maven likes it. Veal parmigiana ($6.75) was a coarse pedestrian version, a soggy cutlet with melted mozzarella and a listless tomato sauce. Uccelletti alla Abbruzzee ($6.75) were three small rolls of beef, tender enough, stuffed with bits of mushrooms and prosciutto in a watery tomato sauce. But pollo alla Valdostana ($6.25) was a tasty boned chicken stuffed with creamy cheese. Capricciosa ($1.50), mixed greens with tender tiny shoots of rugola, was again sandy and this time the dressing seemed overwhelmingly oily. We sipped a light refreshing Verdicchio ($7). The desserts were familiar and good: zabaglione al Marsala ($2.75), whisked tableside over a flame in a small round-bottomed copper casserole—the sweetened yolks fluffy and nutty with the scent of Marsala wine—then served in a ceramic goblet; elvetia, rich liqueur-soused rum cake ribboned with custard ($2); zuppa Inglese, a section of creme-and-fruit-filled igloo topped with a baked meringue ($2.25), and utterly sensational cheesecake ($2)—a rich grainy ricotta body, with its scent of orange rind and small bits of glacéed fruit. Dinner, two bottles of Verdicchio (no drinks), plus tax and tips came to $98.35. And for all these itemized complaints, it went into the memory as a lovely evening: the people, of course, and the moods meshing, but also the aura of caring service and fidelity to standards . . . even if Signor Orsini’s standards do not quite line up with your own.
Twice after lunch I have walked out of Orsini’s thinking, What a lovely afternoon . . . again, good gossip and fascinating conversation at table, the irresistible cheesecake and real espresso, the contagion of vitality and confidence in the company dulling the mediocrity of lunch.
But admittedly, I might not have felt quite so Sensuous Woman if the $30 lunches had come out of my weekly allowance instead of my expense account.
All this grew out of an ultra-chic and expensive little coffee house architectural engineer Armando Orsini opened in 1953 to amuse himself after hours spent erecting schools in Astoria and apartment buildings in the Bronx. Tennis chums and ski pals flocked in and because Orsini’s tennis and ski buddies happened to be Aly Khan and Rubirosa and drugstore cowboys of that ilk, success was instant. Special friends took to lounging at tiny tables in the back room and when they got hungry, Orsini served spaghetti. Marlon Brando, a hippie before his time, was turned away for the independence of his costume. He returned in tails and stood blocking the door, but when invited in, replied: “I’m just waiting…”
Chic is fickle, but Armando Orsini has proved a clever manipulator of society’s caprice. The building was condemned and it was time to expand. “People don’t like change,” he theorized. So he copied the original room with all its bends and curves precisely…next door. “Being an engineer, I could do it.” One day Orsini’s closed. Next day it reopened and no one seemed to notice that the door was a few feet east of where it had been. Then he opened up the summer villa upstairs for lunch. Now he has his eye on what could become a franchise empire, La Pasta. Pasta keeps beautifully, he points out. And “We are experimenting with fast-freezing our sauces.”
Weep with me. Mrs. Stone’s Roman spring chills into shards of winter. Still, if we can automate love, cara, why not clam sauce?
Orsini’s, 41 West 56th street, PL 7-1698. Lunch noon-3 p.m., dinner 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Closed Sundays. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diner’s Club, Master Charge.
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