In my book, a good first-date restaurant offers three key things: First, an intimate setting with soft, glowing light to flatter one’s face. Second, a lively ambience. And finally, a good—but not necessarily challenging—menu.
Italian joints usually fit the bill and are a good barometer of taste. If you can’t appreciate a bowl of rigatoni and a bottle of Barolo, you simply aren’t worth shacking up with. Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria, the smaller, cheaper spin-off of Il Buco, is about as good a rendezvous spot as you can get. The new Noho eatery doesn’t give you anything you can’t find elsewhere in the city, but even if your date’s a dud, you’ll still be charmed by the rustic-chic atmosphere.
The split-level space caters to Italophiles who appreciate the fine art of grazing and lingering. (Service can be a tad slow.) The Missoni-clad gab over espressos at rustic wooden tables (communal and not) illuminated by votive candles. Stacked wine barrels act as walls, while counters display freshly baked loaves, pungent cheeses, and fancy sodas. A long marble bar spans the lower dining room and overlooks the open blue-and-white-tiled kitchen. (Harried chefs always make for good conversation fodder.)
Mood, check. Now, grub. Dotted with a handful of bread cubes, a layered acorn-squash salad ($12) is a play on panzanella, perfumed with anchovies and oregano. It’s so good you might not want to go halfsies. But if it’s starch you crave, order the bruschetta ($11). Ricotta has never met a piece of toast it couldn’t successfully seduce—no exception here. Topped with green and red grapes and drizzled with olive oil, it proves you don’t need an arsenal of ingredients to delight. Crisp fried baccalà ($12) could be called fish sticks, but the strips of lightly salted cod are exceptionally moist. Pickled chanterelles brighten a spreadable and unctuous oxtail terrine ($12). However, skip the $16 grilled octopus with chickpeas, $10 slow-roasted peppers, and $13 eggs with bottarga, all yawn-inducing.
Six pasta dishes might tempt those who want to sneak in a mid-course between their apps and entrées. Order the flawless bucatini cacio e pepe ($16), neither overly dressed with pecorino nor too dry, common pitfalls of the peppery prep. It surpasses the penne and sausage slicked in a bitter rapini pesto ($20) and the rather unmemorable, corkscrew-shaped busiate with cauliflower, anchovies, and mint ($18).
Among the mains, spit-roasted short ribs ($32) provide a welcome respite from the red-wine braising this cut of beef usually gets. The meat falls easily off the long bones like your prom dress after the dance. It’s a hearty plate, though—you’ll need some booze to cut through the richness. Try the Capezzana Barco Reale 2009 ($42) or the unique Malthus Birolla chestnut-flavored beer ($28 for 17 ounces). For a lighter entrée, slurp the seafood brodetto ($28), a hodgepodge of shrimp, clams, monkfish, and mussels in a puddle of herb-flecked broth—save some bread for sopping.
The front half of the restaurant functions as a café, sandwich shop, and gourmet grocery during the day. You’ll find a bounty of salumi (prosciutto, lonza, lardo, etc., each $10), or you can opt for the yummy-but-pricey panini. (Go for the $16 herb-crusted porchetta when you literally wanna pig out.) While there, snap up esoteric stocking stuffers like fig balls or hand-harvested salt for your favorite foodies this holiday season. Sure beats what I get every year: a pair of ankle socks and a bag of Skittles.
For more restaurant coverage, checkout our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com.