Beef is a relative rarity in Italy. Though steaks made from the famous Chianina cattle are a passion in Tuscany, and carpaccio and tagliata are popular in Piedmont, pork is overwhelmingly the favorite flesh throughout the boot-shaped peninsula. Yet Manzo (“beef” in Italian) has chosen to obsess over beef, making it one of New York’s most unusual Italian eateries. But while the food at the new Batali/Bastianich restaurant in the Eataly shopping complex will probably thrill you, the premises definitely won’t.
The first thing you’ll come across as you approach the greeter’s podium is a long bar pointing toward the fish counter opposite the restaurant. The rest is a boxy room barely walled off from the complex, with super-graphic posters showing row upon row of green terraced fields and, high up, a lofty Lidia Bastianich flogging her cooking classes. Attack of the 50-Foot Woman! In between, find a vista that looks toward Eataly’s rotisserie station, where knots of shoppers stare into the restaurant, their mouths agape. It’s impossible to sit in Manzo and not feel like you’re part of a diorama at the Natural History Museum.
But the menu is amazing, with the capacity to transport you from your shopping-center surroundings into a realm of pure culinary invention. A special appetizer section—shamelessly structured to promote Razza Piemontese Beef, an Italian heirloom breed now being produced in Montana—begins with the familiar, via chef and Batali protégé Michael Toscano: a blood-red beef carpaccio, covered with white swatches of parmigiano and lardo, like sticking plasters on the face of a careless shaver. On the same menu are squat slices of lean brisket ($14), boiled, compressed, and dribbled with a piquant salsa verde. It might be the best brisket in town.
The same sorts of presentations also spill onto the antipasti menu, where cool, thin-sliced beef shin is topped with a comically small homemade cracker and a dice of cugna, an obscure Piemontese quince preserve favored by Mario Batali. Though poetic-sounding, the shin tastes a little too much like the salty chipped beef you sometimes find in supermarket coolers. More enthralling is the veal tongue salad ($13), soft as a well-worn glove. Served warm, it comes festooned with frizzled leeks and lapped in a Barbaresco wine reduction. Still, the anatomic details are clearly visible, including the taste buds.
“This feels like critic bait to me,” said my companion, Gretchen, one evening, referring to the practice of intentionally putting oddities on menus to make writing a review an easier task. Indeed, in the early days of Manzo, kidneys graced the menu (they were quickly dropped, as if by a transplant surgeon with slippery fingers), though sweetbreads, tripe, liver, heart, and brain remain, the last two on a special beef tasting menu ($75). By contrast, one of the most satisfying starters is a simple market salad of baby grilled zucchini with yellow string beans, arugula, and hazelnut vinaigrette.
The pastas are mainly northern Italian in origin, and include several things in a ravioli vein, most notably an outsize tortelloni ($21) shaped like George Washington’s hat, oozing melted robiola cheese and deposited in a sauce incorporating chanterelles and pancetta. A novel fettuccini featuring morsels of tripe almost too small to be detected is another of the unmissable pastas—though servings are not large, the pastas are rich enough to be split between two diners, which is something of a boon if you want to go the three-course route of the traditional Italian meal.
Which leaves us with the secondi, the most forgettable course in the city’s Italian restos. Not so at Manzo. Equally shareable, a massive veal chop ($45), long bone thrust petulantly outward, has been smoked in hay, making the chop taste like it’s just come from the barnyard—in a good way. Best of all is a goosed-up version of the conventional tagliata: impossibly tender strips of beef lounge in a yellowish truffle-mushroom vinaigrette, charred on the outside, glowing pink within. You’re not going to want to share it with anyone.
Contrary to expectations, the lengthy all-Italian wine list has plenty of bottles in the $25 to $40 range—and they’re good ones, too. As you’re supposed to do in a roadside osteria in Italy, begin by ordering the wine made by the innkeeper. In this case, that means a $25 bottle of Eataly co-owner Joe Bastianich’s splendid rosato, tinted a pale raspberry and kept cool in an ice bucket. It refreshingly washes down almost anything on the menu. And while you’re at it, toast the gawkers by the rotisserie.