New York’s Italian-American culinary heritage runs deep, and on Monday, Andrew Carmellini and Sal Lamboglia, along with partners Luke Ostrom and Josh Pickard, threw their experienced Borsalinos into the saucy ring with Bar Primi (325 Bowery, 212-220-9100). The bi-level space, formerly home to Peels, was renovated by previous tenant Taavo Somer (of Freemans, Isa, and the aforementioned Peels — he also owns a design collective). The downstairs dining room has been expanded to incorporate more seating, although the communal table reserved for walk-ins runs right up against the host station, which makes for a tight squeeze. Service is running smoothly save for a slip-up the night before I was able to dine, when a hostess had given me the wrong information about closing times and I showed up after the kitchen had closed. Still, it’s week one — worth noting but excusable.
This modern take on Italian-American cuisine comes courtesy of Mr. Lamboglia, a native of Bensonhurst born into a New York restaurant family. Given the names involved, it’s no surprise that the place feels polished and contemporary. It smartly fits right between Parm/Rubirosa and Carbone amidst the city’s revivalist, nouveau Italian-American dining establishments. Torrisi and Carbone are, of course, both former Carmellini soldiers. The deliberate use of logo-printed paper napkins is notable as well, given the overall splashy vibe.
The focus here is fresh pasta, but because of that, it’s another small plates, “sharing encouraged” restaurant. What would be considered main courses are relegated to a rotating menu of daily specials, including veal tails with polenta, and a mid-week special that’s a nod to Carmellini’s Sausage Boss stall at Madison Square Garden, which Lamboglia helped open.
The menu is split into four main categories, two devoted to small plates that are basically the same size, but are meant to be conceptually different. From the piccolini section, this barge of spot-on grilled asparagus ($10) comes coated in a zippy vinaigrette. Crunchy gremolata breadcrumbs balance out a hardboiled egg for a nice springtime composition that’s more greenmarket than Italian.
Although visually twee(zers), an antipasti salad ($10) brings up memories of Arthur Avenue. Along with romaine, there are plenty of croutons, chickpeas, and flaps of meltingly soft salami. Further textural elements, both refreshing and piquant, come from celery, finger radishes, and halved caper berries. It could be a bit more robust, but if it preceded an entree, you’d be fine.
Lamboglia’s pastas are segregated along traditional and seasonal lines, and a dish of spinach cavatelli has dough so verdant, it looks ready to belt out Julie Andrews. Coated in a supple, wine-rich white veal ragout and shavings of piave cheese, the pasta has a lusty chew. At $17, it’s one of the more expensive pastas, which top out at $19 for plates like tubular calamarata pasta with octopus and gaeta olives and an artichoke pasta fashioned into a flower, bolstered with bacon and pecorino cheese.
Perhaps in a nod to the Torrisi empire, there’s a very Parm-like roast beef sandwich ($14), rosy and herb-flecked. Between the soft, seeded bun you’ll find melted provolone, marinated peppers and arugula. Sitting at the bar with one of these and a Rosita — a Negroni variant with blanco tequila, Campari, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters — would be a mighty fine way to treat yourself. Cocktails ($12) are limited to a selection of five, plus bubbly lambrusco sangria ($10 glass/$40 pitcher).
Among the four dessert choices, two — a gelato and a baked tart — change daily. A strawberry coppa ($9) throws a soap opera-worthy cast of characters together to dramatic results. Fresh strawberries sit in balsamic-spiked strawberry vinaigrette topped with whipped cream and strawberry granita. The goblet comes crowned with micro basil and black pepper meringue. Sweet, tangy, spicy, the various expressions of the same ingredient are impressive, with different flavors hitting at different times as the whipped cream smooths out the fruit.
Yes, the restaurant can’t help but feel trendy and cultivated, but Bar Primi’s food doesn’t feel like a caricature. And much in the same way that Peels was a paean to the south, Primi is a paean to southern Italy as much as south Brooklyn. Real estate and economics will dictate whether it has staying power, but right now Lamboglia makes a compelling case for all this nostalgia that food media and the dining public have been gobbling up lately.