Many years ago, a teacher wrote on the board in my freshman philosophy course, “You can’t step twice in the same river.” I suspect this fragment of Heraclitus is all I remember from pre-Socratic philosophy because its validity is so inescapable. It’s amazing how much difference a few weeks can make in a restaurant. A pleasant waitstaff becomes harried, fantastic dishes turn pallid, and vice versa both ways. At times it seems that the only constant remains the decor.
Several weeks ago, when a friend and I were looking for a meal and a bottle safe from the winter chill, we lazily left his West Village apartment, turned right, and fell into the first place that looked welcoming. The room was nondescript: a few unremarkable paintings, a wine rack anchoring the back, and a small podium delineating the entrance. But it looked neighborly enough on a Sunday evening to be tempting. We were greeted by a waiter who clearly knew his way around the menu, which proved to be more extensive than we’d imagined. Soon I was forking down a lightly dressed salad of arugula ($6) that the kitchen readily substituted for the tre colori on the menu, and stealing pieces of creamy sweet mozzarella di buffalo from my friend’s plate of tomatoes ($7.95). I was in heaven when a request for Granaro Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($26) occasioned a trip to the cellar. After an arctic blast from the front door, the waiter reappeared with a bottle that, for once, was not too warm. The mains intensified our growing fascination. My friend’s mixed grill ($26) was heaped with pieces of fork-tender rabbit, lamb, homemade sausage, quail, and pancetta garnished with roasted peppers and grilled mushrooms. Noticing my inability to decide between the spaghetti amatriciana on the menu ($13.75) and the puttanesca special, the waiter offered to spice it up a bit and produced a dish that offered me the heat of one and the smoky bacon flavors of the other. We left feeling we’d made a find.
The river had moved on by the time I returned a few weeks later with a larger group. I sensed trouble when, upon entering, I noticed that my seat was directly in the waiters’ line of march. The room was jammed to the rafters with families, all of them apparently celebrating Saturday. Our appetizers were fine: a froth of salad greens tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette and topped with crumbly goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes ($7.95) and a special of goat-cheese-stuffed mushrooms that combined the mildly sour taste of chèvre with slightly cooked funghi were particularly good. My delicate cannelloni, in a pink sauce flecked with bits of minced tomato, made me dream of Florence, even as the waiters whizzed uncomfortably close to my back. But the strain of a spot stretched to its limits began to show with the mains: The potatoes that came as vegetables were as undercooked as my grilled trout ($18) was overdone. The mixed grill was slightly salty, while the vitello alla Giovanni ($18), sautéed veal scallops with slices of fresh artichoke and mushrooms, needed more than a shake or two. A wonderfully grainy pear sorbet saved the day, and I’ll return for the cannelloni, but I left our hit-and-miss dinner thinking more about freshman philosophy than food.