Rosemary's in the West Village: More Than a Pretty Face
18 Greenwich Avenue, New York NY 10011 (at West 10th; map); 212-647-1818; rosemarysnyc.com
Service: Variable, if well-meaning
Setting: Gorgeous, airy room fully windowed on two sides; can get cacophonously, almost threateningly loud
Must-Haves: Focaccia, cavatelli, olive oil cake
Cost: Small pots and plates $5-8; primi $10-14; secondi $16-23
Rosemary's, the new restaurant from Carlos Suarez (Bobo) dominating the corner of West 10th and Greenwich in the West Village, was made for people-watching. I'm not referring to the well-dressed crowds, though there's that. Nor the general sense of a scene—of caught glances, numbers exchanged at the bar tables—though there's that, too.
No, the restaurant is designed such that you couldn't refrain from people-watching if you tried. (It's the work of firm Dekar Design, like Bobo before it.) Waiting for a seat? You'll be perched at a standing table with a perfect view out onto the dining room floor. Facing a brick wall, while your date faces outwards? Nope—you're staring into a huge fisheye mirror that gives you a panoramic view of the restaurant, perhaps even better than if you were looking straight out. Two sides of the restaurant are completely open, and given the diagonal oddities of West Village geometry, that gives it views onto 3 different streets and about 9 different blocks. Every time I visited, I found my dining companions and me getting distracted from our food and wine with games of "Whose checkered shirt do you like more at the banker table?" or "Whose heels are most ridiculous at the bar right now?" It feels like a social place, and given the general energy (frenetic) and noise level (at times unbearable), it's hard to avoid getting swept up in it.
But I don't mean to suggest that lady Rosemary is all looks and no substance. Chef Wade Moises came through the Batali circuit, first Babbo and Lupa, then as the chef de cuisine at Eataly—overseeing all six kitchens in that crazy establishment. The menu in many ways takes cues from Otto or Lupa: extensive lists of verdure (pots of small vegetable dishes) and seafoods, along with meats and cheeses, as antipasti; pasta and secondi of approximately equal proportion. (With its slick boxed-up menu design, even that looks a bit Bataliesque.)
Perhaps more surprisingly, given the location and the crowd, prices are quite gentle. Pastas top out at $14; three vegetable pots, enough for a small meal or an ample starter for two, are $12. And the wine list (with the exception of a short reserve section) has 40 bottles at $40—taking the cost factor out of your choice, giving the average diner a lot more liberty in deciding. I was more than satisfied with a vibrantly acidic Falanghina on one night and a lighter, crisp Vermentino on another. (For more on the wine list, read Talia Baiocchi's breakdown. )
On to the food. The first must-order is the housemade mozzarella ($10); made daily, it's delicate and supple, jiggly almost like a custard, tasting purely and powerfully of fresh milk. It's garnished with olive oil, salt and Tuscan basil, and it's enough to be a meal in itself (but good enough that you'll have no trouble finishing). Plenty of restaurants make fresh mozzarella, and the effort doesn't really seem worth it; at Rosemary's, this isn't the case. This is a high bar to clear, but I find their mozzarella nearly as good as the best mozzarella I've had at Torrisi Italian Specialties (my personal fresh mozz benchmark).
Forgo the focacce section at your own peril; this is good stuff, and arrives quickly, all the better if you've been hungrily eying others' plates as you wait at the bar. The foccacia di recco ($7), in particular, is outstanding, the light olive-oily bread stuffed with fresh, milky straccino cheese (used as a focaccia filling in Recco, near Genoa). True to the restaurant's name, it's heavy (but not off-puttingly heavy) on the rosemary, and flecked with Maldon sea salt; the bites with melted cheese, enough olive oil crust, and that sea salt are the best. It sits somewhere between light bread course and unabashed comfort food. For something a little lighter, the plain focaccia ($5) is equally well-made.
Rosemary's rooftop garden, at full force in July, currently supplies the restaurant with all manner of herbs, as well as several lettuces, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes (not bad for a Manhattan roof). They make appearances throughout the vegetable dishes and salads. Of the verdure (three for $12; $5 each), cabbages, pecorino, chilies was one of the stronger—the cheese totally integrated with little crumbles clinging to each strand of cabbage, as if it were a pasta; the lively chili heat pronounced but not overwhelming. Lemon juice nicely brightens it up, with slivered almonds adding further crunch.
Beets, dandelion, hazelnuts were similarly well-balanced, straddling sweet and savory, the beets tender to the bite and glossed in a dressing of orange juice, honey, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. (I could've done with some toasted flavor on the hazelnuts, but the dish was still quite good.) I'd prefer either to the caponata, whose vegetables (a cooked jumble of eggplant, celery, onions, sweet peppers, and tomato) weren't well-integrated and whose composition suffered as a result. (The large chunks of celery, in particular, were quite awkward.)
Also reading better than it sounded: the calamari, oregano, raisins ($8) of the frutti di mare section, which was pungently fishy-tasting and oversalted—though I thought the composition (tiny, almost threadlike rings of calamari) showed promise. As far as seafood goes, we much preferred the tuna ($8)—marinated in mustard, fennel, and celery seeds, it's then cooked in olive oil with garlic and chilies and served in generous hunks, with olives, capers, and fried chickpeas good enough to eat on their own.
Those chickpeas also make an appearance in the surprisingly memorable chopped salad "Siciliana" ($11). Chopped salads are so often throwaways, but this one, a happy toss of escarole, sliced artichoke, and cherry tomatoes, is perked up with olives and caper berries, made sweeter with raisins and salty-savory with ricotta salata —with sunflower seeds and those chickpeas in there for crunch. Those flavors are amplified with a fresh and powerfully acidic vinaigrette, champagne vinegar and olive oil balanced by olive and caper juices.
More highlights? Rosemary's homemade pastas, including an excellent orecchiette ($14). It's a little rough around the edges, but that's part of what's lovable about fresh pasta, right? Well-seasoned clumps of sausage and chilies ride along with the pasta and broccoli rabe. "That's why they pair sausage and orecchiette, huh," a dining companion said, pointing to a crumble of sausage nestled in a little ear of pasta. Pretty much; and here, it works beautifully.
As did the peas and ricotta with the cavatelli ($14)—both whole, fresh peas and a sweet puree, ricotta in a healthy mound perched on top. Delicate but not-quite-soft little rolls of pasta cling to both peas and creamy ricotta; the best bite gets all three on the fork. Chitarra alla carbonara ($12) with guanciale was, on our visit, quite tasty with pasta cooked to a perfect al dente, but unfortunately oversalted.
Also edging quite close to salty, the pork tenderloin ($22) is brined and rubbed with fennel before getting wrapped in pancetta, then seared, roasted, and sliced; a fennel purée and orange mostarda help cut the salt a bit, but can't quite. (Still, points for pork dishes appearing with fried pork skin.)
Desserts aren't a focus —chef Moises handles those, as well—but the olive oil cake ($8) is a fine example of the form: richly oily but not at all heavy, with beautifully browned edges that make for the best bites. It's the dessert to get.
Rosemary's isn't without flaws; the occasional oversalted dish, service that is still getting its legs (on one visit, our waiter was so visibly stressed he was sweating and stammering); a noise level that ranges from bearably loud to ringing-ears, sore throat concert loud. (And that's from someone very capable of carrying on a conversation in any rowdy bar.) But given those downsides, it's still possible to find very good things to eat—and really, at far gentler prices than they could get away with.
It's much more everyday-priced than Perla, say, or Il Buco Alimentari. Frankly, I prefer the food at both of those places. But I can imagine myself going to Rosemary's just as often. It's a tough thing, opening an Italian restaurant in the West Village—there are just so many to choose from already. But judging by how lively their dining room is, whether at 6 PM on a rainy Wednesday or late on a Saturday night, Rosemary's has found a niche to fill.
It wouldn't really fit into the Batali empire, but if it did, Rosemary's would be somewhere between a Lupa and an Otto. Spacious, relentlessly energetic, sharable dishes, high-volume, and fairly priced, à la Otto; with food that's just a touch more ambitious, secondi along with the primi, so to speak. Ogni occasione, tutte le occasioni, reads the slogan at the bottom of the menu—"every occasion, all occasions," roughly interpreted. Rosemary's aims for simplicity, in food and drink both; and, to a large extent, it succeeds in doing both well.