45 Tudor City Place, New York NY 10017 (at 42nd Street, b/n 1st and 2nd Avenue; map); 212-599-5045; convivionyc.com
Service: Effusive and professional
Setting: Modern room with soft lighting but invariably busy
Compare it to Scarpetta, Alto, Fiamma (RIP)
Must-Haves: Stracciatella, Lingua, any and all of the pasta, Affogato al Caffe
What you will spend: Dinner: $59 for 4 courses, Lunch: $49 for 4 courses
Grade: A for the pasta
In this economy, especially with all the $35 deals being offered about town (will Restaurant Week ever end?), $59 is not a cheap dinner. But on the other hand, if that price gets you an entire four-course meal with over 50 dishes to choose from—the worst of which is highly competent and the best of which is utterly ethereal—well, that might just be the best bargain in Italian fine dining going right now.
If there is a more unlikely Italian chef than White, I would like to meet him. His hulking frame, quiffed pompadour, and corn-fed Midwestern looks make him resemble a steakhouse chef—his meaty hands seem better suited for throwing around porterhouse steaks than turning out delicate (dare I say effete?) exquisitely sauced pastas. But that is exactly what he does. His pasta is so good, I recommend skipping the entree course altogether and ordering an additional pasta from the primi section of the menu.
But there are compelling items to be found throughout the four courses offered. Take the Fegatini: chicken liver generously smeared on crunchy crostini and brightened with marsala onions. The dish had a wonderful rustic feel, the earthy flavor or the liver really coming through.
Or take the Stracciatella. It will remind you of a deconstructed pizza—creamy, oozing burrata and a tangy tomato spiked with basil is delicious when smeared on the crusty bread that is fastidiously supplied by the waitstaff.
The "Lingua", or slowly poached veal tongue, will melt on yours. It comes dotted with a vibrant salsa verde, capers, and egg.
But as I said, the pasta is where it is at. As the menu proudly states "tutta la pasta è fatta in casa" (all the pasta is made in house). My favorite is the perfectly al dente ropes of fusilli, which come blanketed in a effervescent tomato ragu laced with a hearty braised pork shoulder and drizzled in a creamy caciocavallo fonduta. The dish is a triumph, a near perfect synthesis of textures and flavors. But you can't go wrong with the Maccheroni alla Carbonara, an exulted incarnation of the classic dish laced with a salty pancetta, tangy pecorino, and egg.
Seafood lovers are not left out. Tender knobs of malloreddus come with succulent crab, a creamy sea urchin scented with saffron, the acid from the diced tomato adding a pleasing balance.
My loyalties may be for the pasta, but if you want something a bit more protein-heavy, there are plenty of fish and meat dishes. Do you like lamb? You could do far worse than the Scottadito di Agnello—grilled lamb chops, which I was surprised to find out were actually domestically sourced because they had that gamy, almost herbaceous flavor that I usually associate with New Zealand lamb. It comes served with a salsa verde, escarole, tomato, and beans. My only complaint was that while ordered rare it was delivered closer to medium.
Correct temperature was not a problem with the grilled ribeye steak sourced from Creekstone Farms, Kentucky. It was perfectly rare with a deep mahogany crust, served with some amazing fried potatoes, grilled hen of the woods mushrooms, and a nutty parmigiano. There was nothing wrong with it (but the steak purist in me found the presentation too fussy).
Be sure to save room for dessert. One of my favorite desserts not just on this menu but anywhere in the city is the Affogato al Caffe—freshly-brewed espresso poured over amaro gelato. But the rich vanilla panna cotta served over diced rhubarb and meyer lemon sorbet is sure to please.
Convivio fulfills one of my dining ideals: elevating simple peasant foods to exulted heights. While the prices aren't exactly cheap, the level of cooking, especially the pasta, justifies it. In the pantheon of fine Italian dining in New York City, I can think of no better bargain than Convivio.