Not to be confused with the sainted Roberto’s up in the Bronx, Roberto is a new Hell’s Kitchen restaurant founded by Roberto Passon. He’s the guy who brought the Venetian tapas called cicchetti to town, whereby delightful little snacks of pickled fish, beans, beets, olives, and cod mousse were ranked on a multi-tiered metal platter. My enjoyment of his two previous places, Le Zie and Le Zoccole, and the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend prompted me to check out the new venture. Roberto is located on noisy Ninth Avenue, and for once you might be glad the loud crowd makes enough noise to drown out the honking, rutting, spewing traffic outside. On a first visit, my date—who is particularly considerate of the working conditions under which waiters toil—noted that the floor plan was badly designed, with a bottleneck coming out of the kitchen that causes the staff to sometimes bump into each other. Occasionally, a fight ensues.
The menu claims to be Venetian, a good hook for an Italian restaurant in these regionally disposed times. What that means is not that he’s dredging up ancient Venetian regional recipes like rice and peas, fish and raisins in sweet-sour sauce, or pasta perfumed with rose water. Rather, he uses Venice—for centuries a world power and center of the spice trade—as a flag of convenience for importing any dish he feels like. Thus we have a wonderful “Portuguese octopus” ($9) that seems Greek in its attention to the charcoal grilling of the thick tentacles. Deposited in what amounts to a chunky vichyssoise, the result is mainly French. Also partly Portuguese are the chicken livers ($8), a largish heap of plump organs swimming in a port wine reduction that manages to taste like balsamic vinegar.
Then there’s a Caesar salad ($6)—not Venetian either, but a recipe invented in 1924 by one Caesar Cardini, a chef from Tijuana who named the salad after himself, rather than a Roman emperor. Roberto’s dressing is especially thick and anchovy laced; it’s irresistible. Pastas are the heart of the menu, offered in large portions. If you eat the whole thing, you won’t need any secondi. My favorite pasta is the garganelli ($12), short lengths of ribbed rubbery hose gobbed with a thick sauce made from braised veal osso buco flavored with rosemary. A deft hand with the herbs is one of the chef’s signatures. There are duds among the 15 pastas on the menu too, especially a fusilli with bacon and radicchio in which the leafy red vegetable overwhelms the dish with bitterness.
The entrées seem rather pro forma after the pasta excitement; nevertheless, several stand out. One evening a table of friends eagerly enjoyed the braised rabbit ($15) in light brown gravy dotted with kalamata olives and served with Venice’s favorite starch, polenta. Equally good were light-as-air monkfish medallions wrapped in the lean smoked ham called speck. The sirloin steak ($19), though, provoked a yawn, as much for the lackluster quality of the meat as for the ho-hum wine reduction it rested in. Ironically, the biggest bomb was the quintessentially Venetian liver and onions, a dish that’s been incorporated into American cuisine. At Roberto, the swatches of liver are mired in a thick sauce with a disturbing aromatic flavor. It would have been better left unsauced.