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Disintegrating Gnocchi

Food from former retirement home on meatpacking frontier

Halfway through our meal, my dining companion laid down her fork, turned to me, and exclaimed, "What this restaurant needs is a good spanking."

I had to agree with her. The setting—on a sprawling outdoor terrace in the trendy Maritime Hotel—is hardly auspicious. The building once held a medical facility for retired seamen, and you can easily imagine the groans of old salts in their death throes as you relax beneath the portholed edifice. Diners gaze out across traffic-clogged Ninth Avenue at the Robert Fulton housing projects. Jammed together and scraping the rough cement floor, the metal tables are tiny in the extreme, fit more for an ice cream parlor than a restaurant, and comfy as economy class in an airliner. Add condiments, squat candles, wine and water glasses, and there is little room for the pricey but undistinguished food.

La Bottega is typical of the "big box" restaurants pouring into the meatpacking district—places that seat hundreds and charge prices that would have been unthinkable for this level of food and service five years ago. Even though New York magazine lists La Bottega as "moderate" in price (or maybe their recommendation is really a paid advertisement—read the fine-print disclaimer at the bottom of the page), you'll find it difficult to escape without blowing $75 or so for a full meal with wine. I guess it's something of a triumph that the food is not out-and-out bad. Nevertheless, the quality is wildly uneven. An appetizer of octopus carpaccio ($15) with a fennel slaw is tasty, if a bit dry; the steak fiorentina ($29)—a nice hunk of sirloin, charred on the outside, pink in the middle, served on a bed of spinach—is excellent, especially if you ignore its complete lack of resemblance to a real Florentine steak. The best part of a singularly unadventuresome menu are the small pizzas. My favorite is salsicca ($16), sporting clumps of sweet-hot sausage, good mozzarella, and a nice crust from the wood-fired oven.

Now for some duds. Many pastas arrive soupy and mushy, small for their $14 to $17 price tags. The simplest—spaghetti with tomatoes and basil—is totally bland, making me wonder if the garlic delivery truck got stuck in the Ninth Avenue traffic. Worst of all are the gnocchi, so soft and grainy they disintegrate into the tepid sauce. Though the "Carne & Pesce" section of the menu proves more dependable, it's also more expensive. The chicken cooked under a brick ($21) is admirable, and so is the Milanese breaded veal cutlet ($25), concealed under a lettuce bed. It's even reasonably authentic, though the lack of dressing on the salad renders the dish blah, and we were unable to attract a waiter's attention to request oil and vinegar.

Despite an abundance of servers in navy-and-orange ensembles (others wear East Village black), the service is refractory and surly. Courses arrive on top of each other or separated by vast gulfs of time. One evening we asked to have our pizza served with the pastas. "The pizza's made in a different kitchen," the waiter smirked, "so it can come at any time." And it did, arriving two minutes after the appetizers, so in a test of dexterity, we had to reach under the hot pie to get at the cold carpaccio. That alone merits a spanking.

 
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