Praise the comforting sameness of nice restaurants: the one-two olfactory punch of foaming butter and designer perfume, the massive spheres that hang from their ceilings and glow the color of processed cheese, the skinny waiters, too, with rolled-up sleeves and hairless forearms who ask permission before pouring you tap water.
Newly opened L’Apicio is a glassy cathedral on a shiny stretch of 1st Street, excruciatingly pleasant with its leather seats, grand space dividers, and sprawling dining room. Add a parking lot and it could be that one restaurant in every American town where the people with money come and, on one night a year, the teenagers with new cars take part in the awkward ritual of a nice dinner before prom.
Here it is in the East Village now, packed with well-groomed men and women, downtown to drink wine and share polenta boards. On a recent evening, a middle-aged gentleman and his much younger date spoke to each other exclusively about the ages of other people in the room as they swirled their orange wine, served at cellar temperature. “How old do you think she is?” “No, the one in the beige sweater.” “What about the one over there, with the green necklace?”
Partners Gabriel Thompson and Joe Campanale run three well-liked Italian restaurants in the city—small neighborhood spots. L’Apicio might be built quite differently, but go for dinner and you’ll see some similarities. Campanale’s wine list is a delight for spendy drinkers, as is the swanky centerpiece of a wine room. Service—from the gaggle of hosts and hostesses who greet you at the door to the rushed, intelligent waitstaff—is competent. And Thompson’s kitchen is clearly working hard and fast to feed the 180 people who fill these seats every night.
Some of the food is good. Delicate gnocchi in chicken ragu is a brilliant Italian take on chicken and dumplings—delicious, tender, and a gentle antidote for homesickness, even if you’re not from the South. Esoteric pastas in unexpected applications are perhaps the most successful and refined dishes on the menu. Try the little packages of agnolotti filled with a hot sweetbread mousse ($17) or the thin rolls of pale green garganelli ($17), lovely in a lean lamb Bolognese with a bit of pecorino.
Polenta boards sound awfully trite, don’t they? But ordering one here is in your best interest. A long smear of hot, sweet polenta does well for itself with bouncy pork meatballs, braised oxtail, or gently bitter broccoli rabe ($16 to $19). The blackened tuna ($26), an outdated dish that is certainly not due for its comeback, also surprises. The deeply colored meat is rare inside, sliced carefully and beautifully, on a sweet and vinegary caponata of fennel.
But the kitchen tends toward overseasoning, like a cod saltimbocca ($27) in a salty broth of clams and chorizo that leaves you breathless with thirst. And a clunky bistecca ($24) with an unpleasantly sour salsa bianco was cooked and plated sloppily, with none of the elegance of L’Apicio’s pasta dishes, as if it had been delivered from one of the neighborhood’s grimy bars, as an appeasement to Ron Swanson.
Desserts are the work of pastry chef Katherine Thompson. They look modular and efficient but taste good: Crème fraîche panna cotta ($8) is thick and wobbly on its gingersnap base, while a chocolate crostata ($8) is dark and smooth. Although it’s not terribly exciting in its soft crust, it’s just the kind of dessert that people who love chocolate will moan on about as they eat.
Is it love they’re feeling as their eyes go back in their heads, or just affection for what’s familiar? At L’Apicio, it can be hard to tell the difference.