I was a giant fan of Andrew Carmellini’s cooking at Café Boulud, so much so that I spent my own money there to celebrate special occasions, and voted for him last year when he was nominated for a James Beard award. He won. The novel four-part menu encompassed four distinct cooking styles, which emphasized, say, French classic cooking, farmers’ market fare, Vietnamese cuisine, and nouvelle vegetarian. With a couple of apps and entrées in each category, putting a meal together became a pleasurable dilemma. Nevertheless, one always wondered at Café Boulud: What was owing to Carmellini, and what to his boss Daniel Boulud?
A Voce (“Word of Mouth”) is Carmellini’s attempt to go back to, or at least reinterpret, his southern Italian roots. Thus one appetizer (vegetable antipasti, $14) features three contrasting saucers of things to be spread on Tuscan-style saltless bread: The first contains the buttery Apulian mozzarella called burrata, well peppered and flooded with odiferous olive oil; in the second glisten strips of red and yellow peppers dotted with capers; in the last there’s a tart and sweet eggplant mush dusted with cheese. Taken together, they’re the perfect introduction to southern Italian flavors.
With its high ceilings and picture windows that look out on gray 26th Street, the dining room has an unfortunate Upper East Side feel to it. Even though Madison Park is steps away, the restaurant derives no benefit from its greenness. The room seems like a bank lobby, so that when the waiter takes the check, it feels more like you’re making a deposit. The narrow entrance is dominated by a graceless bar, which swells in the evening with cocktail swillers, making access to the dining room difficult, and generating a deafening din. Next to the drinkers, diners are made to feel like second-class citizens.
No matter, the food is fantastic. There are plenty of beguiling starters, found among the appetizers and in the section devoted to market-driven fare—shades of Café Boulud. Domestic La Quercia prosciutto (jeez, it’s from Iowa!) is served in gossamer slices laid out like a Sunday church outfit and garnished with black mission figs, while a frankly weird-but-tasty row of duck meatballs ($15) comes mired in something dubbed “dried cherry moustarda”—it’s more like a demi-glace. Any pasta is good, and the raviolis are doubly so. One evening we chose “my grandmother’s meat ravioli” ($23) and were rewarded with a savory pureed filling in irregular pouches, which convinced us that grandma had had a few swigs of Aglianico del Vulture before she rolled up her sleeves and started working the pasta sheets. Indeed, these ravioli owe more to northern Italian “tortelli with a tail” than anything found in southern Italy. On another occasion we enjoyed a fresh-corn ravioli heaped with mushrooms singed on the edges and glossed with truffle oil and smoked-tomato puree—altogether one of the best pastas I’ve ever had here or in Italy.
Dining strategy is a small problem at A Voce, since it’s hard to know how many dishes to order from which categories to avoid slipping into gluttony or insatiation. What I’ve discovered is this: If two people order three appetizers, split a pasta, and split a secondi—of which the best is a lamb tasting of two chops and pieces of braised shank, $30—they’ll be well fed but not overstuffed.