Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria
53 Great Jones Street, New York, NY 10012 (between Bowery and Lafayette; map); 212-837-2622; ilbucovineria.com
Setting: Informal, trattoria-style room with take-out shop in front
Must-Haves: Risotto, kale panini, gelato
Cost: Most (large) lunch items $12-20
Does New York need another ingredient-driven Italian restaurant, where the base elements are so good the food practically cooks itself? We didn't think so until two things transpired: we had a mostly killer lunch at Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria, the salumeria-trattoria spin-off of its slightly more formal sister restaurant Il Buco, conveniently located right around the corner. And, since it's a market as well as a restaurant, Ed did a bit of shopping: he made the finest pasta sauce he's ever made in his life by buying a log of what they call salumi pate, crumbling and browning it, adding some sweated red onions, and a jar of strained and cooked tomatoes.
Cue instant dinner party adulation and moans of pleasure from the dinner guest, all courtesy of store manager Aaron Oster.
So the real question about Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria is: where do you start?
Well, first—whether you're shopping or eating in—you should meet the dazzling array of house-made breads that confront you as you walk in, courtesy of Kamel Saci. These rustic breads, full of flavor, texture, and character, are in the style of the great Jim Lahey at Sullivan Street Bakery—and though there have been a number of Lahey-inspired bakeries opening in the five boroughs, Il Buco is the only one that approaches his bread in terms of overall quality and consistency. And it'd be equally foolish to miss the housemade salumi, courtesy of consultant and former Chez Panisse chef and salumi maker Christopher Lee (expect a follow-up post on this in the future).
But though it's no small feat to make such world-class products, a great Italian restaurant cannot live by bread and salumi alone. This is where chef Justin Smillie does his magic. He uses these ingredients and others to create deceptively simple meat, fish, and pasta dishes that never skimp on flavor. Even his salads and vegetables are surprises on first bite. In a few cases his flavors can overwhelm a particular dish, but we'll take a chef's occasional flavor excesses over a more timid approach to cooking every time.
This restaurant even shines at breakfast (what is it with all these Italian restaurants making great breakfast items these days—given that so many Italians just have coffee and a pastry for breakfast?).
But here, we're talking lunch. Given how slammed they've been at dinner, in fact, since Pete Wells unexpectedly handed them three stars in the New York Times, we find the daytime hours the best for a visit these days, with a menu that still shows off everything we love about the place.
Good luck keeping lunch on the light side. But if you want to, stick with the Zuppa ($14). Two of our favorite vegetables (kale and chickpeas) in one of our favorite forms of food (soup) is the ideal light lunch. The broth packs a remarkable hit of flavor—enough that it's not dominated by the generous shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano it gets on top before serving. Similarly straightforward is the Insalata Di Cicoria ($14), a hearty salad of bitter chicories which stay fresh and crisp in a light, vinegary dressing, the crunch accented with a handful of bread crumbs.
One of our few quibbles came with the Grilled Sausage ($14). The large pork sausage was packed with flavor, but the texture ran a little on the mealy side—a common shortcoming of housemade sausages. As a flavoring for the creamy lentils scented with fried sage and onions, though, it worked well enough.
For a more substantial starter, consider the fry cooks your friends. Crisp and juicy Fried Rabbit ($15) is a little leaner and more delicate than fried chicken, with a salty, pepper-flecked crust drizzled with a touch of sweet honey and lemon juice. It'd be hard to choose between that and the Crispy Artichokes ($12)—the grease-free baby artichokes scented with a hint of preserved lemon. We like the frizzled tender leaves at the top of the choke best, all the better for catching bits of salt, herbs, and lemon juice.
You'll find the menu quickly gets more substantial; the Octopus A La Plancha ($18) could be a lunch in itself. Octopus legs are braised until tender, then finished on top of a hot grill, giving the briny meat a crisp, lightly bitter char. Its rich smokiness is complemented by a big spoonful of chickpeas dressed in some fine olive oil. That vinegary fruity note you're getting? Pickled currants. Roasted Lamb Ribs ($16) used to be the part of the lamb that cooks saved for themselves, but the secret's out now. A plate of fatty, oozing, salty roasted lamb rib bones comes with a simple drizzle of olive oil and a peppery romesco sauce.
Smillie knows his pasta, and many were even better than they looked as they arrived at the table. It's amazing how a few strong ingredients can come together so seamlessly, as they also do with the Spaghetti ($21). A plate of spaghetti is tossed with a briny bottarga-based sauce that gently coats each strand in a savory funk—ingredients of the highest quality, combined with balance and restraint. Those more inclined toward land than sea should stick with the Paccheri ($21), thick tubes of hand-made pasta served with a juicy ragú of oxtails and vegetables with braised greens and fat shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's the heartiest pasta on the menu and requires a sopping device for the juices left behind.
The most memorable may not be a pasta dish at all, but rather the Risotto ($16)—one of the most ethereally light and flavorful versions we've had. (And how often do you describe risotto that way?) The creamy vialone nano rice retains a perfect al dente core and comes with a seasonally rotating flavor. In this case, it's Swiss chard with lemon zest, the latter brightening the dish even further.
So many of these dishes are in an Italian spirit; but if you expect panini to be simple, restrained sandwiches, think again. Upon seeing the Slow Roasted Short Rib Panini ($18), all we could think was: Holy hunk of beef, how the hell is one meant to eat this sandwich? A beast of a panino, the inch-think slab of slow-roasted short rib is insanely rich and the copious amount of melted gorgonzola only boosts it. An onion agrodolce imparts a faint sweet and sour note, but it's not enough to alleviate the assault of richness. This is a sandwich that'll have you thinking that is ridiculously good after the first bite, then leave you wondering how you're ever going to take another, let alone finish it.
For a slightly more sane (if equally delicious) sandwich, opt for the Tuscan Kale Panini ($13). We've been seeing kale sandwiches pop up all over the place (we even have our own take on it). It's a trend we'd like to see continue. Tender and juicy braised kale makes a fine sandwich filling, especially when covered in melted stracciatella and a hint of anchovy.
But of everything we ate at Il Buco, the desserts were the most pleasant surprise —and really, one of the best parts of the meal. The Gelati E Sorbetti ($9) pictured above, flavors ranging from salted caramel to Meyer lemon, are without question among the best in the city. Intense flavors and a perfectly smooth, light, creamy texture without a hint of graininess give them a step up over most of their frozen brethren. We found ourselves reminded of Meredith Kurtzmann's gelato at Otto, and that is the very highest gelato compliment we can give.
Chocolate and espresso come together in the cute Bicerin ($7) modeled after a cup of cappuccino. It straddles the line between decadent and light rather nicely. We liked dipping the chocolate wafers into the whipped mascarpone. And a Roasted Pear ($8) glazed with caramel is paired with a mildly tart buttermilk ice cream perched on a mound of corn-y semolina crumble. Even after plowing through the short rib sandwiches and pastas you see above, we still ate every bite.
It's gotten to the point where we occasionally feel as if we can't review another ingredient-focused rustic Italian spot. The announcement of a new one almost feels silly. But we're happy to have gotten so well acquainted with Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria. Because from bread to charcuterie, breakfast to dessert—not to mention those pastas—there are just too many reasons to go back.