June 2, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Pino Luongo Finds His Groove at Centolire (CLOSED)
Pino Luongo has mellowed in this gracious eldergarten. Photo: Steven Richter
Pino Luongo has mellowed in this gracious eldergarten. Photo: Steven Richter

        My great pal Bob is sharing the subtleties of Centolire with me.  Restaurateurs, chefs and sommeliers adore Bob – he is an unabashed appreciator, the customer owners dream of.  When I can’t get a table at Daniel or a counter seat at Robuchon, I call Bob.  “There are several prime tables here,” he observes, glancing around at the geriatric convention.  “This is one of them,” he says luxuriating in the approval rating implied by our booth overlooking Madison Avenue.

        “You never want to sit downstairs.”

        “But it was so serene down there,” I protest.  “I guess you have to have supreme confidence in who you are to sit there.”

        “Some people just like it,” he agrees, “The rest haven’t a clue.”

Pino actually cooks these days and tosses a mean Caesar salad.  Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve never eaten here in the eight years Centolire has been in this awkward duplex where a small string of contenders failed before.  Well, actually, I did ride the glass elevator up to the staging area one evening after I read that Pino Luongo himself was cooking.  Mercury in retrograde?  Pino cooking?  After years of lording it at Le Madri (with his three “mother” cooks) and as the marketing brain of Tuscan Square, Pinot is in whites again. What did this mean?  He wasn’t in the house that long ago evening, so I didn’t stay.

        As the elevator doors open tonight - Centolire at last - we are instantly embraced in Bob’s aura (Bob’s wife Ellen is wreathed in that aura, too, but I think she knows it’s Bob who dispenses the baksheesh of compliments and exuberant enthusiasm.). If the maitre d’ could carry us bodily to our banquette, he would.

Baking crumbed calamari instead of frying it makes the difference. Photo: Steven Richter

        Instantly the house’s welcoming lagniappe arrives - a mosaic of prosciutto-wrapped bread sticks, olives, mortadella and
 Spaghetti with baby octopus. Photo: Steven Richter 
cappocolla chunks, pebbles of parmigiano and a small bowl of fresh ricotta whipped with crushed pepper and “a bit” of olive oil, crying out “Eat me, eat me!” Unusually chewy foccaccia is dangerously delicious, the perfect vehicle for that creamy fluff.  Ellen asks for more mortadella with the confidence of family entitlement.  It arrives with great abondanzza, enough generous squares of meat for a high school football team picnic. I’m afraid to ask for more foccaccia, knowing it will come.

        And then Pino appears, just in time for Bob to scold him for violating his favorite dish, the grilled hanger steak, pairing it with eggplant parmigiana now instead of crisp roasted potatoes.

        “That was winter,” Pino says.

        They’re jollying each other but both know this is serious.

        “I’ll just have the potatoes on the side,” Bob announces.

        Long time Pino followers may want to catch him now, definitely mellowed.  After a buyout at Le Madri and surrender at Tuscan Square, still a partner at Coco Pazzo, he seems remarkably content courting and truckling to his well-heeled flock. And they seem contented too.  Considering the abuse senior citizens suffer when we wander afield – this is a benign eldergarten. A tad noisy but not punishing.  Serious lighting - we can see without flashlights! Menus with sensible
Rigatoni buttera. Photo: Steven Richter
print and bold face titles, plates piled high just like home (used to be) and Pino, the loving nanny.  “It feels intimate,” he says, “Like Il Cantinori (where he began as a waiter) in the old days.” He settles with his memoir co-writer, the prolific voice of non-literary chefs, Andrew Friedman, tapping the computer at an entry side table so he can hop up to greet kiss kiss, say goodnight kiss kiss.

        “Larger than life,” Friedman observes. “Operatic in his passion.  He has so much personality I have to rein him in.”

        We’re verging on operatic ourselves over-crumb-dusted calamari (cleverly baked rather than fried) under a thicket of watercress, the evening’s special fried soft shell crabs on a nest of red oak, frissee and arugula, and over pastas like splendid spaghetti with baby octopus and properly al dente rigatoni buttera – a savory Pino classic with sweet and hot sausage, peas, tomato and a touch of cream.

        Chicken livers over bruschetta, a classic of Cibreo in Florence, are rare enough but I prefer mine caramelized and crusty. Chanterelles with chickpeas on a chickpea pancake, special of the night, sounded like a good idea but it isn’t, with a lumpen pancake,
Cookies to dunk. Photo: Steven Richter
arid and boring. Lush eggplant parmigiana alongside Bob’s hanger steak could be dinner for me. Dover sole is never my choice when pasta is an option but Ellen’s fish comes fortified with a luscious spinach stuffed Yukon potato cake, its parmesan mantle gratineed.

        Cogniscenti order soufflés for dessert.  But Pino has already sent out fluffy Neapolitan cheese cake and lemon semi freddo, and because it’s Bob – assorted cookies with chocolate fondue, a $9.50 dessert on the house.

        As for these Upper East Side prices, I suspect savvy regulars, affluent as they are, have discovered that generous beginnings (mostly $15.50) are shareable and pastas ($19.50 to $22.50) are available in appetizer portions. Entrees ($29 to $49 for the rib eye) come with a vegetable side right there filling out the plate, often something ambitious like vegetable fricassee on risotto. And the prix fixe lunch is $27.50.

        A note atop the menu reads, “As the song goes…Centro Lire (100 lire), the fare to the land of better opportunity.” America, of course, Pino’s opportunity. Today, alas, the lire has been banished and 100 euros won’t take you far. But we won’t mind spending it again to be fussed over by Madre Pino.

1167 Madison Avenue between 85th and 86th Streets. 212 734 7711 Open 7 days. Monday through Saturday lunch, noon to 3:00; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 pm.  Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., dinner 5:00 to 9:00 p.m.


Farewell for Now, San Domenico

 Marisa May carves nuggets of parmigiana for fans at the bar. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Long time San Domenico fans and family friends - pals of Tony May, school friends of daughter Marisa, even Marisa’s “brother” Mauro Maccioni and his wife - filled the house Friday for the three course $55 run from the original menu – 20 nights of 1988 prices in honor of twenty years on Central Park West, ending June 16, celebration after a standoff with the landlord.

        “It wasn’t that good a location anyway,” May confides, over goose liver on toast, the famous ouvo in raviolo, and ethereal potato gnocchi in tomato-tinged butter, joining our table with his wife Halima. Excited that famed designer Massimo Vignelli will do his first restaurant in America for a new hipper San Domenico in a sweeping Gramercy Park location that’s still being built. May admits he was somewhat alarmed when Vignelli suggested maybe he should co-design with Richard Meier. May decided to take it as a joke. But I think the eternally optimistic restaurateur had a sudden stabbing vision of how much he had to teach Vignelli about  restaurant layout.

        With tables turning till almost midnight, Chef Odette Fada emerged late from the kitchen elated but looking like she’d been through the sacking of Rome.  It seems the cooks are already leaving to find new jobs before summer doldrums set in.  “Our friends are helping us by sending replacements,” May reported.

240 Central Park South 212 265 5959. Dinner prix fixe $55 through June 16.


Patina Restaurant Group