The bavette cacio e pepe is killer at Lupa.
When Lupa opened on October 1, 1999, it was the third restaurant for Mario Batali, and the second he’d started with partner Joseph Bastianich, following closely on the heels of Babbo. But Lupa was different.
The warm salad of winter greens and guanciale.
Billing itself as an “Osteria Romana,” it was unlike any other Italian restaurant in town, which generally fell into two categories, or a hybrid of the two: red-sauced Southern Italian food, or veal-intensive Northern Italian. Lupa split the difference by showcasing the menu of Rome, which is quite unlike the other two types, with a palate as refined and distinctive as Paris’s.
There have since been a cavalcade of restaurants doing the same thing — including places as diverse as Quinto Quarto in the West Village and Testaccio in Long Island City — but Lupa set the standard, with sparsely sauced pastas emphasizing the noodles themselves and neglecting tomatoes, composed vegetable dishes, charcuterie, and especially homemade charcuterie, with a list of secondi that showcased the capital’s quirks. We decided to revisit the Greenwich Village restaurant to see if it’s as good as it once was — especially since the Batali-Bastianich team has over a dozen projects on the burners across the country.
There’s no doubt the joint remains wildly successful — one must reserve weeks in advance, and even then you must wait for a table at the crowded bar, despite what must be at least 80 seats in a serpentine layout that includes three rooms. And, judging by our meal there, the food is every bit as good as ever. The wine list, too, remains tops for a restaurant of its size — all Italian. Even the bottles around $30 tend to be superb, as was the Tiburzi Colle Scancelatto blend of 80 percent sangiovese and 20 percent canaiolo grapes made in Montefalco, Umbria, that we drank that evening. Priced at precisely $30, it was marked up only a little over twice retail, and there are distinguished wines from all regions of Italy, with a particular specialty in Friuli and Tuscany.
The mellow front room is quieter than you might expect.
Batali’s warm headcheese (testa) is legendary.
We started out with a selection of room-temp composed fish and vegetable dishes, including a lovely winter squash, skin-on, with toasted hazelnuts; a bacalao (salt cod) salad that was the only disappointment of the evening; a fairly odd dish of brocooli rabe and fresh ricotta; and a warm salad of winter greens and guanciale. From the charcuterie, we had homemade coppa (neck-meat ham) and testa (head cheese). Served warm, the latter is one of Batali’s signatures, and displays the adventuresome relationship with variety meats that Lupa still promulgates.
With classic rock whispering in the back, and expectant guests three-deep at the bar, we dived into pastas. The bavette cacio e pepe is a Roman standard, pasta twirled in a rind of pecorino with an astonishing quantity of black pepper, and probably the best dish of the evening. The spaghetti carbonara, perfectly cooked, was also memorable, though I’ve had eggier versions in Rome. Finally, we chowed down on a garganelli with a tripe ragu, which replaces a tripa alla Romana that used to be among the appetizers on the menu. In Rome, tripe is surprisingly cooked with tomatoes and mint.
Try as we might, we couldn’t eat any more, so the secondi were left unexplored — which is considered perfectly OK, and even desirable, at Lupa, where the menu is multifarious enough that you can skip entire sections. Stewed oxtails and saltimbocca remain the most Roman of choices, but my favorite has always been the polla alla diavola, a very spicy chicken.
For a restaurant to keep its quality up for more than a decade is unusual, and this is doubly so at Lupa, since it’s owned by a restaurant empire. But knowing Batali’s love for this — his third child — and Bastianich’s attention to detail in operating restaurants he’s involved with, I’d say Lupa will remain one of NYC’s foremost Italian restaurants for a long time. Dinner for three, with a bottle of wine, tax, and tip: $190.
Garganelli with tripe ragu.