On the roof of Eataly: 200 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10010 (at 23rd Street; map); 212-937-8910; eatalyny.com/eat/birreria
Service: Gracious and helpful (once you're seated)
Setting: Open-air space atop Eataly, with (partial) views of the Empire State
Must-Haves: Fried shiitake mushrooms, Cotechino sausage
Cost: Small starters $12-15; mains $17-24
Grade: B+ (if money and time are no object)
When I imagine a beer garden, of whatever provenance, I imagine long, rustic tables with food piled high, people coming and going, stopping between bar and table, a convivial feel of shared merriment and cheer. The sort of place where you stroll in, sit down, and are watered and fed to your heart's content.
What I don't imagine is setting an email reminder alert prodding me to rush out of work and across town for the sake of punctuality, showing up to a forty-person line even before they begin dinner service at 5:30pm, putting my name in with one hostess, being escorted to the side by a security guard, being ushered elsewhere by another, panicking over my inability to track down the rest of my party, sending frantic text messages, finally finding my companions at around 5:32pm, attempting to get the hostess's attention again, being "cleared" to go up the elevator 15 minutes later, waiting in another line at another hostess stand, being asked to step to the side by another security guard, asked three more times who was in our party, getting a lecture about seating policies, being seated ten minutes after that, and being presented with a menu that doesn't really let one escape without paying $30+ a head, before drinks.
That may have been a bit long-winded. If that tired you out, then Birreria, Eataly's rooftop beer garden, will, too. The process of getting in reminds me more of trying to get into a West 27th Street nightclub in 2005 than it does any restaurant I've ever been to.
All that said, once you're inside, Birreria is a delight. Any number of Manhattan's top-floor bars are crowded beyond reason during the summer, enough to make a person swear off rooftops altogether once she's had a few passionfruit martinis spilled on her at 230 Fifth. Birreria is not like that. The outcome of all that crowd control is that their rooftop is an exceedingly pleasant place to spend an evening, a place where it is easy to drink well and dine well. And surely, it's not Eataly's fault that their newest brewery and restaurant, where they'll actually be brewing cask ales, where they're serving excellent sausages and tasty drinking food, is so wildly popular that they have to employ this sort of structure. It is, however, a consideration for anyone planning a meal there.
But let's move on to the good news; the food. You've got a choice of crusty country bread wrapped up in paper Otto-style, or for an extra charge, a biergarten-appropriate pretzel bread ($5 for a half-loaf, $9 for a full). Go for the latter. Salty with a great crust, it really does sit somewhere between pretzel and bread, enough like the former to snack on, enough like the latter to accompany a meal.
As it appears, you'll probably be perusing the beer menu, and there's a lot to see. On our visit, the rooftop brewing apparatus wasn't quite functional yet, but Delaware brewery Dogfish Head (one of the partners in Birreria's beer program), is brewing some of the same cask beers that will soon be produced at Eataly itself; in the meantime, you'll be drinking that (very good) Delaware-made brew, or one of the Italian beers on draft. (Check out Maggie Hoffman's take on the beer here »)
How about the more substantial food? The list of ingredients provided with the Tritata ($13)—Romaine, potato, fried chickpeas, hot cherry peppers, salumi, red onion, cucumbers, pecorino, red wine vinaigrette—had us excited; the salad itself was relatively simple, a pile of tasty if not memorable things, with the very big exception of the fried chickpeas, which were fabulous. Imagine a chickpea the consistency of a particularly crunchy Chee-to, but with all its own nutty flavor. "I didn't know chickpeas could do this," someone murmured. Birreria, if you're reading: we think you should just offer the chickpeas, in dishes, as a bar snack.
From the grill, the pollo con pesto di olive verdi ($19) is somewhere between a large starter and a small entree, depending on your appetite. The chicken itself is well cooked, crisp outside with moist thigh meat within, with a nutty, appealing almond pesto. All that is well-salted, while the wilted greens underneath creep toward the border of too salted. (Even the salt-lovers at our table felt that Birreria had a very heavy hand with the salt. If you tend to find restaurant food too salty, that'll be a problem here. That said, it sure does keep you reaching for beer.)
Birreria devotes a whole section of the menu to funghi—a nice testament to the fact that vegetarian fare can be as indulgent as its meatier counterparts. We loved shiitake fritti con salvia ($15), a pile of small shiitakes layered with sage before they're deep-fried; crisp and salty, they're easy to down by the bowlful. Less snackable but no less appealing were the maitake con pecorino sardo ($15): tender, chewable roasted maitake with spring's fresh asparagus and peas and, lest this sound like a light salad, a soft mound of crème fraiche folded in with grated sheep's milk Pecornio Sardo. I slathered it on what remained of the crusty bread.
Sausages are the obvious draw at Birreria, and they range from very good to excellent. All are juicy and deliciously fatty, well-seasoned and easy to scarf down. The cotechino (all sausages, $21 for a plate of two links or the equivalent) was our favorite by a long shot, a pork sausage with warming hints of cinnamon and nutmeg and clove, cut into coins with each exposed surface gettng a beautiful crust. We also enjoyed the veal-pork bratwurst, the clove- and cinnamon-laced blood sausage with currants and pine, nuts and the coriander-spiked probusto (though that last one was a little softer than we would've liked). You can taste all four, along with the fatty and fork-tender pork shoulder ($19), for $95: a good deal if you're planning on ordering that much food, though not all that much of a cut off ordering them a la carte. That price seems steep when your unadorned sausages and two sides arrive at the table—a hundred dollars for that?, one of our number said—but it's hard to imagine food more filling. After appetizers, five of us could only finish half the platter.
We took our leftover sausage across the street to Madison Square Park, where on a lovely June night, our lucky colleague and the Serious Eats overlord met us for leftovers and chowed down contentedly. In that moment, without any thoughts of price or the hassle the evening had been, those sausages never tasted better. The food is, for the most part, excellent. But a trip to any restaurant involves an awful lot more than the food.
In the end, I felt about Birreria exactly the way I felt about Eataly as a whole. Ambitious, successful, exciting; crowded, confusing, expensive. The logistics of running such an operation are staggering, and while Eataly doesn't quite make it look effortless, they do an incredible job; they camouflage the better part of that effort. It may not be perfect, but it's extraordinarily impressive. It may be a jam-packed space, but it's a beautiful one. It may be pricy, but the quality is commendably high.
Those are the sorts of tradeoffs you're left with. The food and drink are uniformly good, the atmosphere more than pleasant; a meal divorced from cost or hassle would be an eminently recommendable one. But at this point, given how in-demand those tables are, whether it's worth the time, price, and effort is a personal sort of calculus.