Date Night: Casual Elegance at Zampa
Zampa isn't the sort of restaurant you'd expect to find on the edge of the Meatpacking District. It's intimate and tiny, for starters, and its fiberglass chairs and wooden tables have a bit of unintentional scruff. Specializing in cheese, charcuterie, and wine, Zampa is made for the kind of date in which you want to show you care without coming off as overly committed.
We ordered two small plates and one large plate to split, along with glasses of light-bodied ruché and vibrantly fruity primitivo. Among its 80-odd choices from Italy, the wine list features a good selection of reds, whites, roses, sparklings, aperitivi, and dessert wines by the glass, half bottle, or bottle. Servers and bartenders thoughtfully answer any questions or suggest pairings. And rather than stare you down as you taste the sample, they might casually step away from the table, as our server did, letting you sniff, swish, and sip on your own.
The bresaola with shiitake mushrooms, pecorino, arugula, and truffle oil ($14) was more than a great salad. Its mushrooms looked like pinwheels but were substantive and savory, thanks to herbs like thyme and oregano. We rooted beneath the arugula to get to the last layer, the six or so silky slices of cured beef, which just about melted on the tongue. For some, the truffle oil will impede the taste of the bresaola, while others will love the slickness atop slickness, rich umami atop slight saltiness. We two were evenly divided.
For our second small plate, we tried the roast shrimp with garlic crostini, white wine, and cannellini white beans ($14). The first bite of garlic crostini was as abrupt as an alarm clock on a Monday morning. Dipping the bread into the not-as-effervescent-as-you'd-expect white wine sauce rendered the garlic milder. The shrimp, boasting char marks, were nevertheless light and deftly done. This could easily work as a main, given the generous bread basket (both white and multigrain slices) that comes at meal's start.
Cracking the crispy cheese atop Zampa's lasagna bolognese ($19) reveals excellently al dente, homemade pasta layered with beef, pork, and porcini ragu and béchamel. This dish was prim and clean, not cheesy or saucy, a reminder that Italian cooking can be restrained as well as boisterous.
The folks behind Zampa also run Bottino and Chop Shop in Chelsea. One side of the tables offers comfy gray couches, the other side Eames chairs in oxblood. Overall Zampa is stylish and a little sexy without being oppressively trendy or romantic. It's the restaurant equivalent of dress jeans and shined shoes, best for: a casually elegant date.