Wednesday evening in New York, Tawn decided to attend a yoga class led by a particular instructor about whom he had read. This resulted in a late dinner, so our friend Biing suggested we try Ōttō, Mario Batali’s family-style wine bar (is that an oxymoron?) and pizzeria on Fifth Avenue a block away from Washington Square Park.
The challenge was Biing and I had several hours to kill before meeting Tawn for dinner and we were hungry. Working our way over to the Madison Square Park area near the yoga studio, we decided to split a burger and fries at Shake Shack by way of an appetizer.
On this pleasantly not-frigid evening, there as quite a crowd gathered around Shake Shack, which is nicely nestled in the midst of the park. The Empire State Building looms to the north (visible on the left of the picture). Lights strung across to the still leafless trees reminded me of a line from the Les Miserables song “On My Own” and the tables closest to the heaters were still popular, a reminder that Spring had not quite yet sprung.
Opened by New York restauranteur Danny Meyer, whose restaurants include Grammercy Tavern and the Union Square Cafe, the Shake Shack is Meyer’s attempt to tackle the classic American treat, the hamburger. Considered by many to be the best burgers in the Big Apple, I found the burger to be good but not great. There are a lot of relatively expensive, good quality burgers out there these days. To that end, I might as well just eat one of those relatively inexpensive, good quality burgers that are also available.
Not that there was anything wrong with the burger – there wasn’t – but I just don’t see the fuss. As for the fries, they reminded me of Ore-Ida fries taken from the freezer, devoid of fresh potato flavor. We didn’t try the nameshake – excuse me, namesake – shakes as the weather was still a bit chilly.
Arriving at the building where we were to meet Tawn, Biing and I had to ride in what is the narrowest lift I’ve ever seen. The camera is being held in the upper corner of the car. Thank goodness for wide angle lenses. After picking up Tawn we walked down to Ōttō, building up his appetite and burning off our burger.
Ōttō’s design conceit is that of the Italian train station. Names of guests waiting for a table are displayed on a signboard that looks like an arrivals and departures board. It is a pretty space, a little loud, and definitely made for socializing. This is Mario Batali’s “low end” restaurant, the one that is most accessible to the masses, and it is known for its antipasti, pizzas, and pasta.
Service was friendly and pretty attentive, given how busy the restaurant was this late in the evening. A small package of brown butcher paper was set on our table, which we unwrapped to discover some fantastic bread along with imported breadsticks. I’m not sure I understand why breadsticks need to be imported, but they were light and crispy and enjoyable, so why ask questions?
We ordered a trio of verdure – greens – for $4 each. Our selection was the Funghi Misti (mixed mushrooms), Asparagus and Pecorino cheese, and Roasted Peppers and Capers, front left. This was a tasty combination to snack on with the peppers being my favorite. The saltiness of the Pecorino cheese didn’t seem to rub off on the asparagus, which was barely cooked and not seasoned. The mushrooms were nice although they also seemed a little under-seasoned.
We also ordered a plate of Salumi for $9, a really tasty sausage with hunks of lard mixed in with the meat. I was reminded of a meat appetizer dish I had on my first night in Italy back in 2001, after which I spent the next day drinking copious amounts of water trying to rehydrate myself from all the sodium.
According to Biing, pastas are the weak point on the menu at Ōttō. We ordered a Linguine Puttanesca, a classic sauce made of anchovies, capers, olives, chilies, and roasted tomato. It was tasty but wasn’t very distinctive. For $9, though, it was a reasonably priced bowl of pasta.
The pizzas are supposedly the big deal. Some say the best in New York but of course everyone has an opinion when it comes to that matter. We ordered a Margherita DOP, with nothing more than tomato, Bufala Mozzarella cheese, and basil – perhaps the best combination with which to compare the qualities of a pizza. Interestingly, Ōttō’s pies are cooked on a griddle. This results in the crispest crust I’ve ever had on a pizza, one that remained crispy throughout the whole eating, down to the final piece.
The sauce, however, was a let-down. It tasted like a tin of tomato paste with no added seasoning. That was the flavor: flat tomato and nothing more. And it was spread rather thickly on the pizza so it soon became the overwhelming flavor on the tongue. They say it is the sauce that can make or break a pizza and in this case, I’d agree.
For dessert, we enjoyed the homemade gelato, which offers some very unconventional flavors. Last August I stopped by here while Biing and Tawn were shopping for an afternoon pick-me-up of olive oil gelato.
This evening, I had the trio of dark chocolate, Guinness, and salty peanut gelati topped with coffee bourbon sauce and chocolate crumble. It was very tasty. The Guinness gelato tastes just like Guinness beer.
Tawn had the Olive Oil Coppetta, a mixture of olive oil gelato, candied clementines and kumquats, lime curd, tangerine sorbet, and fennel brittle. It was also very nice although the mouth feel of olive oil gelato remains a bit heavy for me.
My only concern about the gelati is that they are very soft when they arrive and they, of course, quickly become softer as you try and take pictures, even if you hurry!
So the overall review? Ōttō is an enjoyable place for a group meal with good service and decent prices for what you get. The food is good, not great, and the pizza is on my to-avoid list. For a drink and some appetizers, though, this is definitely a good choice.