Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner will be eating his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget.
Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, the most casual restaurant of celebrity chef and serious eater Mario Batali, toes the line between pizzeria and wine bar—a large standing-room only area next to the bar, a sizeable dining room in back. Both share the same menu, which is divided between antipasti, pizza, and pasta. Certain items are on the pricey side, but for the most part dishes range from about $4 to $15—making it an Apps Only dream.
Everything is served family style, and items are brought to the table as they are ready. I decided that the best way to get the most bang for our buck would be to order the least expensive pizza—the minimal Bianca ($7), topped only with olive oil and salt—and then spend the rest of our cash on antipasti and pasta. The Bianca was perfect: for a plain round of dough, it's remarkably flavorful, thanks to the tangy olive oil drizzled on top. The crust is very thin, but it maintains its crispiness remarkably well and provided a wonderful bed for all of the antipasti ordered.
The vegetable antipasti are all four bucks a pop, with over a dozen seasonal options on the menu. We decided to go with Salsify with Blood Orange ($4), White Beans with Sofrito ($4), and Celery with Bagna Cauda ($4). The salsify, a root vegetable, was the least notable dish of the evening. Absorbing the hue of the blood oranges, the color was magnificent but the flavor didn't match. It wasn't terrible, but it didn't stand up to the other dishes. The white beans with sofrito, however, was the most delicious bean salad I've ever had in my life. Tossed with olive oil, onions and carrots, the beans were tender and bursting with flavor. A little heat made things more interesting.
It was the celery that emerged as the star of these veggies, lightly cooked so they were tender yet crunchy, and served with bagna cauda on the side. It's not far off from a really good Caesar dressing, but far fishier and far more tasty. The anchovy flavor is not for everyone, but if you like it as much as I do, this is probably the most memorable celery dish you'll ever eat.
Also recommended for anchovy lovers: the Anchovies, Breadcrumbs and Scallions dish ($8). The breadcrumbs are really more like croutons, sizeable chunks of crunchy bread, with fresh-tasting anchovy fillets. The dish was fishy, sure, but it was also fresh and springy with lots of citrus overtones—a welcome respite from the freezing weather. This dish reminded me more of pickled herring than it did of any anchovies I'd ever eaten. (And I say that as a fan of pickled herring.)
We also ordered a plate of the salumi ($9). Charcuterie isn't usually the best way to go for the tight budget crowd, but we received a big plate of the stuff, and I have to say, it would have been a deal if they'd given us even half that portion. Though dry and almost tough, the salumi's resistance was the best part, making you chew and chew, forcing the meat to reveal layers and layers of changing flavors, almost like jerky—if jerky ever tasted this good. The longer I chewed, the more flavors came to the fore. It wasn't overly salty, either. For me this was a revelation in dried meats.
The last item to come to the table was the pasta dish we ordered, Penne Con Noci E Zuca ($9), in a buttery sauce with butternut squash and toasted hazelnuts. But the name of the dish fails to mention its star ingredient, something I will now dedicate a lot of time to seeking out: smoked ricotta. With a semi-soft consistency, it doesn't look like your standard ricotta, and the smokiness is so palpable I initially thought there was bacon involved. There wasn't, and I didn't mind a bit. The dish was rich without being overdressed, and the sweetness of the squash and the crunch of the hazelnuts added both depth and texture. This was probably the most interesting thing we ate all night.
All in all, Otto passed the Apps Only test with flying colors: before tax and tip, our food totaled $45 (there were three of us). Not only did I assemble a whole meal, I left feeling more stuffed than I have in a very long time. I don't mean full—I mean laying on the couch, moaning, for a full hour afterwards. The menu lends itself to assembling a full meal of interesting and varied snacks, which is exactly what I look for in a place. If you're looking to gorge on some really tasty appetizer size portions, Otto is the place to be.