Having mentioned that my original Saturday lunch plan for Torrisi Italian Specialties had changed when the weekly menu failed to live up to my friend’s hopes, the last official reservation secured for this trip to New York wasn’t exactly “last minute,” but it was pretty close and even though I’d gone ahead and visited Torrisi on my own the night prior I was perfectly to do Italian again – this time at Mario Batali’s Manzo, the formal restaurant inside of metropolis that is Eataly. While some seemed to question this decision given the swirling controversy regarding Batali and Company’s business politics, the pending departure of Chef Michael Toscano, and (perhaps most of all) the mess that is Eataly on a weekend I personally was excited – the menu looked great, reservations would make the crowd a non-factor, and all things being equal New York is by far and away my favorite city to dine Italian.
With our reservation set for noon and my day started early as ever with a substantial breakfast at Dominique Ansel already behind me, my arrival to Eataly was nearly half an hour early by design – busy or empty I simply love the store, the selection, and the general absurdity of it all…it’s like Disney World for food (and almost as much fun) – and after about twenty minutes of gazing at house made breads, artisan meats, and hundreds of varieties of vinegar and olive oil I made my way to the restaurant, checked in, and grabbed a seat at the bar until my friends arrived and we were led to a table in the center of the dining room.
Shocked at first with just how well Manzo is secluded from the hustle and bustle of the store and seated on sturdy chairs in front of large tables with white tablecloths that would not have been out of place at Babbo or Mozza it would not be long before our server would arrive and with menus for both food and wine presented we sat weighing our options and chatting about our respective meals the day before until Juan Pablo returned, answered a few questions about the availability of tasting menu items ordered a la carte, and returned to the kitchen where Chef Toscano was plainly visible even on a Saturday afternoon directing his team.
Thinking aloud that Manzo was far more quiet than either of the Mozzas, Babbo, or Otto despite the flurry of activity less than twenty feet away even though the same soundtrack of the Stones, Who, Doors, and White Stripes could be heard closer to the bar it would not be long before the meal started with the delivery of bread – a crusty and warm Italian style Semolina Loaf and thick, rich Focaccia along with a pour of 2008 Vintage Olive Oil and even a round of salted cow’s butter on request. With the breads expectedly good, the olive oil clean and grassy, and even the butter surprisingly good for a restaurant that does not generally serve it things were off to a nice start.
Deciding to go with four courses each our antipasti certainly weren’t the lightest options on the menu – just the best – and with two of us choosing from the main menu and one opting for a selection from the tasting the trio arrived in grand fashion with one waiter delivering each plate and beginning with the Jewel Yam with Trumpet Mushroom, Pancetta & Saba both the flavor and presentation of it and subsequent dish would be quite impressive. For the Yam, while I only had a couple of bites, what I tasted was surprisingly complex as the tuber was presented as a puree, a baked skin, and as crispy straws all working in harmony with the hefty roasted mushroom to balance the brine of the crispy pork and drizzled cooked wine. Sweet and savory, crisp and creamy, it was the least “expected” wow of the afternoon and although I cannot recall the wine served with it, my dining companion enjoyed the pairing quite well.
Dining with a foie gras queen and myself also known to overindulge on the delicacy the other two antipasti would prove every bit as good as expected and with myself opting for the Foie Gras Terrine with Chestnuts, Cranberry Mostarda & Pannetone while the lady chose the Seared Foie Gras with Cotechino, Lentils & Aceto Balsamico it was not only a tossup as to which was better, but also which was a better bargain; to say the least, Manzo doesn’t skimp when it comes to foie. Beginning first with the seared preparation my first thought was that the richness of the sausage would be too much for the liver but in reality the pairing worked well thanks to the nuttiness of the lentils and the sweet acidity of the balsamic, both cutting the fattiness of each item substantially without muting the flavors. Moving next to the terrine – let’s just say it stacked up favorably to the one at Per Se the day before in terms of texture and quality while the creamy chestnuts and cranberries were a lovely wintery touch even as the temperatures outside hovered in the unseasonable mid-60s – and buttered, grilled Pannetone? <sigh>
While I could have easily left Manzo and given it high praise then and there (yes, I could definitely see going in for just the bread, foie, and a glass of prosecco as a perfectly lovely afternoon) the next course was the one I looked forward to most – the primi. Dining with familiar friends and knowing that much sharing was to be done it was with little difficulty that we made our choices and again with a waiter per each large plate the portion sizes would actually prove shocking – easily 2-3x the size of a similar priced course at Babbo or Del Posto – and with suggested cheeses shaved tableside the tasting began with the “Orecchiette with Sausage & Broccoli Rabe Pesto,” the only dry pasta of the group, imported direct from Italy, and perfect al dente with the spicy fennel sausage chopped directly into the robust sauce and notes of bitter and pepper nicely balanced by a mild sweetness, plenty of basil, and a dusting of aged Tellagio.
Moving next to a dish simply called “Agnolotti with Brown Butter & Parmigiano” I was amazed when it arrived with more than a dozen thumb-sized pockets of pasta and after a quick tableside dusting of Parmigiano my impression only improved after taking a bite. House made (and apparently at times sold in the pasta section of the store,) these agnolotti were not the ultra thin ravioli of Babbo but instead a toothsome Piemontese pocket stuffed to bursting with a creamy blend of Fontina, Mozzarella, Veal, Pork, and spices that literally melted in the mouth like a savory pudding. Simply dressed and intensely flavored this was probably my favorite pasta of the afternoon – no small feat considering its competitors.
For the final primi selection I ordered the Spaghetti alla Chitarra with Lobster, Tomato & Basil and finished tableside with Tellagio the dish delivered exactly what was expected of it – tender house made pasta, snappy lobster, plus a bold and bright sauce with acid and sweetness in harmony. It was simple, it was fresh, and it was delicious.
At this point realizing we’d over ordered (especially with dinner plans for Dovetail that night) the main courses began to arrive and while my dining partners had each opted for a robust secondi I let my love of pasta run wild with a second round for my main course, this time the Fusilli with Duck Ragu & Foie Gras, another mountain of carbohydrates but this time fortifying the beautiful San Marzano tomatoes with the smooth sapor of foie gras and adding texture with a combination of duck confit and cracklins- the overall effect like a hearty duck stew and only improved with the tableside addition of 24-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano DOP – a taste so rich that just a little went a long way.
Moving next to something a bit more substantial…and when I say ‘a bit’ I actually mean a daily special from Raven & Boar featuring about twelve ounces of bone-in chop from a whey fed pig along with winter vegetables, kale, leeks, brown butter, and aceto balsamico. Having had Batali’s interpretation of pork more than once in the past I guess it really should have come as no surprise that the supple pig arrived in such plethora, but roasted or not I still fail to comprehend how they manage to cook such a thick chop so well without charring the surface. I also don’t know how much of this went back to my friend’s apartment for a meal (or two) in the subsequent days, but I’m pretty sure it was at least half.
For our final savory it should be obvious by now that we ordered everything that contained duck and to round things out another substantial dish arrived entitled “Glazed Duck with Shiitakes, Charred Scallions, Pancetta & Persimmon” and like everything else about that afternoon the execution was flawless. Beginning first with the Long Island sourced fowl, a large margret was presented with minimal fat overlying the supple, rosy flesh and resting atop a thick bed of woodsy mushrooms, pungent scallions, and sweet persimmon ‘pudding’ the plate was completed with a light touch of local honey and crisp, smoky pancetta. Like the pig this was another dish where all three of us loved it and should have liked to enjoy more but taking into account what had already been eaten and the night to follow this too was another dish to be re-experienced in the following days as leftovers.
With the hour now just prior to 2:00 and myself with plans to attend the barista competition/coffee and tea show before dinner the dessert menus were presented and while all of us were full I simply could not see forgoing dessert – besides, I finished all my plates – and with that noted we placed our orders and waited briefly before the three (thankfully) dainty desserts arrived. Beginning first with a trio of frozen treats, one of my friends ordered the house made gelato and sorbetti consisting of Hazelnut and Stracciatella Gelato plus Coconut Sorbet – each dense, smooth, and expectedly well made but the coconut the true show stopper of the group in its delicacy of texture but impact of taste.
Moving on to a pair of composed desserts (aside from all the lovely ones they sell at the Patisserie in Eataly) my selection for the afternoon was titled “Bonet alla Piemontese” and featuring a sort of mousse meets flan it would definitely prove to be the most interesting of the three in that I’ve really never tasted anything like it. Airy, light, and described as Espresso Custard the texture really still remains hard to define, like a marshmallow but wet or a panna cotta but dry and heavily perfumed with sweetened espresso plus a drizzle of Amaretto, crumbled Amaretti cookies, and Stracciatella Gelato on the side.
For the final dessert, a bit more easy to characterize than the Bonet but just as interesting and delicious, the “Chocolate Crostata” delivered a dense dark Amedei chocolate Tart with a buttery crust, sliced toasted almonds, salty caramel, and both caramelized banana and banana puree to round it out. Intense and bitter with those characteristic fruity notes so prevalent in all Amedei products I loved the manner in which all of the sweet accoutrements held the flavors in check and rounded out with a small quenelle of vanilla gelato the only thing that could have made this dessert better would have been a cup of coffee.
Asked if there was anything else we’d like and subsequently delivering the bill (and telling us the shopping bag of leftovers was waiting with our coats) it should be noted that lunch at Manzo is certainly not “cheap,” but rather quite on par with other fine dining Italian options in the city that are open during such hours (Ai Fiori, Marea, A Voce, Lincoln) but in reality this really does not seem out of line as not only the food and the service but also the setting were every bit as pleasant. Having never had a bad meal in a Mario Batali restaurant but understanding his critics I can only say that whether he is still truly a chef or instead a businessman who can cook really does not matter – the man hires smart people to run his kitchens and while he could have easily mailed it in on Manzo and still packed the place based on location he instead brought in one of his best from Babbo with results no less impressive.