Just a few years ago, museum dining meant chomping down on watery Cobb salads and mayo-laden tuna sandwiches—and that’s if you were lucky. But then good old Danny Meyer introduced high-quality chow to art lovers, first with the Modern at MOMA, followed by Untitled at the Whitney. Along the way, the Museum of Arts and Design got a swank commissary called Robert, while New Museum patrons devoured delicious mango-quinoa-chocolate cookies from its Birdbath bakery outpost. Eating well while getting your daily dose of culture has never been easier.
Now joining the gang is Caffè Storico, an architecturally beautiful Venetian-inspired spot from restaurateur Stephen Starr. Located in the venerable New-York Historical Society on Central Park West, it’s a cool space, all white and marble, seemingly influenced by Dutch modernism and American colonialism. Fifteen-foot-high display cases dominate the walls, featuring monochromatic china and assorted service pieces. Brass chandeliers twinkle overhead. Stealing glimpses at the cooks sweating away in the open kitchen, ladies who lunch command the long, neon-yellow banquette. Evenings, too, tend to bring in a slightly older (though still pre-AARP) crowd, perhaps lured by the lack of blaring music and relatively straightforward Italian cuisine.
Chef Jim Burke has divided his menu into cicchetti (a/k/a small bites), primi (pastas), and secondi. One of the best starters happens to be the most expensive: a $16 portion of lightly fried, intensely sweet langoustines, served with tart pink grapefruit and ricotta. But worth every penny. A minestrone chock-full of crisp veggies and beans ($8), meanwhile, takes the chill off blustery evenings. And how can you say no to burrata ($13), especially when garnished with tiny fried artichokes? Note that these plates are truly portioned for nibblers. If you’re looking to feast or are eagerly awaiting your big income-tax refund, be warned. Cases in point: four bites of decent-but-not-outstanding arancini for $7 and, oh, two tablespoons of lackluster king crab salad clocking in at $12.
But you’re sure to be smitten with the house-made noodles. My faves? The ricotta cavatelli with chunks of lobster and black trumpet mushrooms ($22) and the artichoke mezzaluna with porcini ($20). Sweet and earthy flavors vie in the first, while the second is brightened with lemon zest and parsley and a snowdrift of Parmesan cheese. And those half-moons don’t skimp on the prickly vegetable stuffing. Pappardelle, meanwhile, plays host to a duck ragu that has been seduced by whispers of chocolate and orange ($21). The kitchen knows its greatest strength, too: It offers twice as many pastas as main courses.
Indeed, compared with their starchy sisters, the entrées play it safe, almost to a fault. Of course, there’s roast chicken ($24). It’s served with chanterelles and fennel, which are lovely, but the bird’s skin should be crisper. Sea bass over cannellini beans ($28) veers toward boring, though it is cooked nicely. Better is the hearty, gremolata-spiked osso buco with polenta (actually well priced at $28).
The all-Italian wine list is food-friendly yet also unearths some unusual varietals. Try the 2008 Foradori Teroldego ($50) if you’re in the mood for red. The 2010 Le Giare Vermentino ($46) offers a fine change from the standard selection of whites. Suds lovers can knock back Moretti on draught ($8), but they’re in for an arguably greater treat beginning May 25, when the Society launches its three-month-long exhibition “Beer in New York.” Who doesn’t want some additional proof that hearty boozing makes for awe-inspiring history.