Wine bars were rare a few years ago, but now loom large on the dining landscape. Restaurateurs love them, because these joints often push overpriced alcohol to the forefront, while treating food as a glum afterthought of pressed sandwiches and cold sliced meats. (Ditto tapas bars, izakayas, and other “small plate” places.)
But there are notable exceptions.
Centovini (“100 Wines”) was spawned by Curry Hill’s I Trulli, one of the city’s better Italian restaurants. Located on Houston Street, Centovini shares I Trulli’s emphasis on the cooking of Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot, via a shortened menu of cheeses, cured meats, antipasti, pasti, and secondi. Like its parent, Centovini maintains a wine store next door, allowing you to buy bottles you’ve enjoyed in the restaurant. The premises are spare, dark, and modern. “This feels like a furniture store,” Corina complained.
For a wine bar, the food can be breathtaking. Among appetizers find burratina ($14), a glistening ball of well-salted and -peppered buffalo mozzarella, served with roasted peppers and culatello, a proscuitto-like ham said to come from the side of the pig’s ass on which the tail curls. The sausage known as cotechino—invented in Modena, but featured in Apulian pork stores like Faicco’s—comes lusciously stewed with miniature lentils, while salt cod and potatoes are whipped into a delectable froth and served with the navel-shaped Apulian crackers called taralli.
Made by the proprietor’s mother, Addolorata Marzovilla, pastas ($20) surpass the apps. Shaped like cowry shells, ricotta-containing cavatelli come tossed with buttery broccoli rabe. I’ve sampled this Italian-American favorite across the breadth of Brooklyn and it’s never tasted better. The noodle list also includes maccheroncini in a pea-dotted Bolognese, and tiny ricotta raviolis in sage sauce sweetened with a dice of roasted orange squash. The secondi are smaller, pricier, and generally not as tasty. While I loved the veal cheeks ($32), proffered with a few real baby carrots, the seared beef tagliata proved tough, and the pork loin rather dull tasting.
What about the wines? The waiters tend to push them by the glass, and—odd for a wine bar—don’t cough up the by-the-bottle list unless you specially request it. That’s because bottles are a much better deal, even though only three fall below $35 on the 158-item list. At $18, my glass of Terre de’ Trinci’s Sagrantino—a middling version of a wine I’ve enjoyed in its hometown of Montefalco, Umbria—seemed exorbitant, its five-ounce pour (allowing five pours per bottle) barely filling the bottom of the elegant stemware. The worst deal was an $11 glass of Goj, an obscure fizzy red from Piedmont. Maybe it should be called “Gouge,” because the entire bottle costs $15 next door. Sometimes, prices at the wine store seem inflated to justify by-the-glass prices in the bar: A bottle of Dolianova’s Monica de Sardegna, for example, made from a rustic Sardinian grape, commands $35 on the wine list and sells for $17 in the wine store; at I Trulli’s store uptown, the same bottle goes for $14. A superior version of the same wine, Argiolas’ Perdera, is available at Astor Wines for $12.99.
High markups are endemic to wine bars—which is a shame, since wine bars should tempt you with reasonable prices, encouraging you to try new wines and drink more glasses. With ungenerous pours and punitive per-glass prices, Centovini forces you to nurse every glass.