In 1998, the Voice declared ‘ino the second-best inexpensive restaurant in the city. “Restaurant” was something of an exaggeration, though, since ‘ino was no bigger than a walk-in closet. ‘ino achieved this award by pioneering paninis in the city, a fad that has since come to encompass hundreds of establishments. Miraculously, it also anticipated the wine-bar trend. While the wine list was instructive, the food was fantastic, whether it was the truffled egg toast, the crunchy fennel salad, or the transcendent mortadella tramezzini smeared with lemon mayo.
Through the connivance of brothers Jason and Joe Denton, the Little Place That Could spun off other establishments—sometimes intertwined with the Mario Batali–Joseph Bastianich dining empire—including Lupa and ‘inoteca. Now, even more ambitiously, the brothers have founded Bar Milano on the sunny southern slope of Murray Hill, the last place you’d expect to find a resolutely upmarket Italian restaurant with a wildly innovative menu.
As the name suggests, the place channels the urban sophistication of Milan, a subwayed city that rivals New York in cosmopolitan energy. In Milan, too, the residents are obsessed with fashion. Thus, the walls of Bar Milano’s dining room flaunt rich marble panels in tones of rose, green, and dark gray, which march across one wall like aerial photos of extraterrestrial landscapes. The opposite wall features glass cases displaying wine, like bookshelves in a library’s rare-books room. Seen through a scrim, the rushing traffic on Third Avenue provides an urbane counterpoint to the room’s opulent elegance.
As with some of the best big-ticket restaurants in Italy, the menu doesn’t strive for authenticity; instead, it wreaks intriguing changes on traditional foodstuff. More conventionally, the menu is divided into the usual three courses: antipasti, primi, and secondi. To enjoy all three, you should share a pasta or a main course with a friend—the portions are big enough to make this possible.
Typical of the antipasti is polpo alla griglia ($14), several charred tentacles from a young octopus tangled with beet matchsticks and resting upon triangles of yellow watermelon, exploiting a current vogue for watermelon-bearing salads. While I admired the assemblage, my dining companion declared it too sweet. Other appetizers are extravagantly rich, including a fried-potato pouch like a miniature Tunisian brik, resting in a pool of melted cheese; a hillock of black caviar rises on top, and when you cut into the pouch, egg yellow floods out. Inevitably, there’s an appetizer featuring pork belly, but equally as good is the poetic-sounding insalata de cavolo nero ($10), a generous toss of Parmesan, sorrel, and chewy strips of black kale in a buttermilk dressing. It would make a fine vegetarian entrée.
While the exotic juxtapositions of the antipasti sometime succeed in being just interesting rather than truly delicious, the pastas ($12–$24) are uncontestedly brilliant. The chard and cheese concesi, free-form agnolotti with more greens than cheese, were totally on the money, as light as helium balloons. On a bill of fare that specializes in stuffed pastas—via chefs Steve Connaughton and Eric Kleinman, who continually tinker with the menu—also find osso buco agnolotti: floppy filled triangles lying flat in complete surrender to a rich butter sauce with a hint of lemon zest. If anyone in your party voted to eat at Nobu instead of Bar Milano, get the borsetti: potato-stuffed buckwheat boxes decorated with ribbons of speck that look like Japanese Christmas gifts. The tripe’s also spectacular—de-skankified organ strips lounging like tired swimmers in a reservoir of soupy polenta.
Among secondi, sardines ($23) rule: three slender fish gleaming blue on a bed of faro risotto, with the nubby Roman grain bravely standing up to the strongly flavored fish. Roast chicken ($20) is another good choice—not the bland bird that provides a safety net in most restaurants, but a crisp-skinned specimen on a bed of spaetzle and crumbly liver, the latter an indispensable ingredient in rustic Italian sauces. There’s a mob-size pork chop ($26), and a duck breast ($29) that comes sliced with marbles of duck sausage and pickled beets. The breast, alas, was the weakest part of the dish.
The wine list is flooded with pleasing oddities, with plenty of choices south of $40. My favorite was a wine I’d never tried before: Alta Via’s Dapprimo ($36), a mellow and full-flavored Ligurian red that garners two glasses in Slow Food’s Gambero Rosso. Make sure you save some to enjoy with the cheese plate—three varieties from a locavoric list for $15, with some surprising accompaniments. It’s the perfect ending to a wild subway ride of a meal.