New York minutes/Mid-October 2009

The believe-the-hype: Zero Otto Nove Trattoria, where my consort and I headed after his photo shoot with an exhibit designer at the Bronx Zoo and after the press contact who gave us a lift to the closest gate in his little zippered train raved about it. Good thing it was so great, because Bob was schlepping a heavy bag with tripod and light bank plus his camera bag and we did some walking: 10 blocks to the restaurant, with a stop at Borgatti for some hand-cut pasta and a box of ricotta ravioli and stops afterward for  Milan-level espresso at a cafe down the street and the cheapest Illy espresso in town at Teitel Brothers. When I did my Arthur Avenue piece for the NYTimes seven years ago, I tried enough restaurants to know the neighborhood is a shopping, not eating, destination; our lunch at Roberto’s was underwhelming. But the owner of that place has done everything right here — the design is more LA than NYC, and the pizza is so much better than you will ever eat in Italy, land of the sodden crust. Hospitality in the sit-down   joints up there is always wanting as well, so we did not storm out when the bartender idly watching one of the two big-screen teevees acknowledged us by saying, “It will be a few minutes for a table.” Pressed on how many minutes, he persuaded us to take stools at the bar.  And it felt like seconds later that we were tucking into a perfect arugula salad topped with shaved Parmigiano and an individual pizza topped with the weirdest combination on the long menu: potatoes, sausage and smoked mozzarella. The crust was very different from Co(mpany’s) but still kicked that overpriced effeteness’s ass. (Extra points for coal oven, and speed with which the thing arrives and is still cooked through.) WIGB? Can’t wait, but never for dinner. If there’s that much attitude and wait time at lunch in a place that takes no reservations, I can’t imagine what it’s like when the working world flocks in. 2357 Arthur Avenue, 718 220 1027.

The pretty good: Recipe, where I met a friend I have been neglecting through this long annus horribilus because it was her choice and where the food and service were so much better than early reports had threatened. Plus it was a deal: $9.95 for appetizer and sandwich or $11.95 for appetizer and main course — so I had the former (dainty duck confit spanakopita [singular] set over spicy foie gras oil with exactly one leaf of arugula, an olive and I think a grape tomato, followed by an attempted cheese steak sandwich with potato chips that tasted too much of duck fat, whether they were or were not fried in that easily funked medium). Nicki did even better with the special heirloom tomato salad followed by the crispy duck confit with assorted vegetables. I was kicking myself in my own leg for not ordering that. WIGB? Yep. But again, not for dinner. This place makes Land Thai look like Tavern on the Green, space-wise. 452 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 7755.

The overwrought: Nios, in the Muse Hotel off Times Square, where four of us headed after a book signing at ICP in search of a quiet corner and imaginative food. (I’d read Patricia Williams conceived the menu, and her cooking is always worth checking out.) It was just before curtain, so we had the place nearly to ourselves, which may be why the service was so herky-jerky (emphasis on the latter half of that description). We split three slivers of cheese at 5 bucks a pop plus a plate of jambon to start, and those should have been a warning that no one in the kitchen knew where the brake was — each sliver came with a mound of sweet accent, while the ham that should stand alone was teamed with cornichons, pickled peppers and (excellent) creamy horseradish. The bread basket was just as copious. And my sheep’s milk gnocchi ($12 appetizer as main course) were doing valiant battle to be heard over asparagus, toasted hazelnuts, arugula, peas etc. Bob ordered the bison-bacon meatloaf, also excellent if overkill, although the sides of whole shiitakes and potatoes deserved their place on the plate. I didn’t try the fresh pasta or the arugula salad (with green goddess dressing) or the smoked mozzarella sandwich (which came with a salad of its own, a fact the waiter could have pointed out), but they looked good. We shared a bottle of a biodynamic Spanish red that took the waiter some time to find, and when it was finished he just reached in and grabbed glasses as we kept eating (did I mention we had the place nearly to ourselves?) And it all would have been great if not for the music. On my way to the bathroom I saw the receptionist in the hotel lobby had a tiny dog with her, and I wondered if it goes nuts listening to that incessant, mindless techno-thump all night . . . WIGB? Probably — it’s one of the few places in the wasteland where you can talk even with the crap music. 130 West 46th Street, 212 485 2999.

The promising: The new cafe at El Museo del Barrio, where I was rewarded for listening to an hour of congratulatory speeches about the dramatic renovation of the museum with the best tamal I have had in burro’s years. This was everything tamales rarely are: light but dense, flavorful, nicely balanced between cheese filling and masa, teamed with excellent if mild salsa (made for the cafe by the farm that grows the tomatoes). The promised duck chimichurri empanadas that had lured me to this press event were replaced by rather leaden ones filled with chicken molé, though. But I confess that I went back twice for more of the salsas, both green and red, served with tortilla and plantain chips. The Great Performances honcha I was introduced to noted that her chefs are largely Hispanic and were especially excited about this cafe; the one who was serving the tamales deserved to be proud. WIGB? Definitely. Not only does the new cafe have courtyard seating right across from Central Park but the menu looks enticing and the exhibits in the museum itself are superb. They’re less about Latinos and more about a universal love affair with New York. Fifth Avenue at 104th Street.