13 East 1st Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n Bowery and 2nd; map); 212-533-7400; lapicio.com
Service: Surprisingly polished given the restaurant's age
Setting: Lofty, slightly clubbish off-Bowery restaurant
Must-Haves: Octopus, linguini, arancini, polenta
Cost: Around $40/person for food
Opened in November just off the Bowery, L'Apicio is not Gabriel Thompson and Joe Campanale's first foray into Italian—but it certainly is their biggest. They built their reputation on Dell'Anima, L'Artusi, and Anfora, restaurants (and a wine bar) of the no-reservation, close-quarters set. L'Apicio has left that Village, and that Village aesthetic: a Bowery restaurant on the scale of DBGB. Soaring ceilings, a separate front lounge, three folks at the hostess table: it's a sizable operation, as far away from their cozier early projects as it gets.
But L'Apicio proves that they do, in fact, have the ability to scale, and scale successfully —on our visits, it ran like a well-staffed, well-oiled machine, a place that feels far more established than its age would suggest.
Within a few weeks of opening, L'Apicio became impossible to book—there aren't that many 180-seat restaurants where you can't get a table on a Monday night. Why did it catch on so quickly? After a few visits, I've decided this: it's simply a fun restaurant. Not a new Italian restaurant of the tripe and tongue, house-cured meat persuasion (though I'm speaking as one who finds those things fun, too). It's a crowd-pleaser, in a positive light, not in that it's dumbed down. In the sense that anyone can find something to love about it. Where arancini come stuffed with sausage, because hell, sausage is delicious; where many dishes are speckled with pepperoni, because it is too.
Let's start with the Octopus ($18), which would never have occurred to me as a potential pepperoni partner. Two tentacles, braised in red wine (and thoroughly tenderized), then charred on the outside, spiral elegantly around each other. The colorful jumble underneath—toasted fregola, celery and parsley leaves, olives, pepperoni—integrates beautifully, the briny olives, the slight heat of the pepperoni. Many of the best dishes at L'Apicio work that way: seeming not like disparate elements on a plate, but happy mouthfuls of vibrant flavors, better together than apart. The vegetable sides succeed for precisely that reason. Broccoli rabe joins sausage and herbs, breadcrumbs and a ton of garlic for a side that seems a composed meal in itself. (And ample enough to be a meal in itself. I took the remainder home for lunch the next day and found it a satisfying small meal. When's the last time you said that about a side dish?
Equally irresistible were the crisp-fried arancini ($8), each housing a molten core of sausage and arancini, fried sage a tasteful accessory; and pork meatballs over silken, Parmesan-laced polenta. Pure comfort food, bites you end up remembering and craving when hungry a few days later. I'd return for either and a cocktail at L'Apicio's good-looking bar, where the cocktails are similarly likable: a light, balanced Montenegro sour; a white Negroni with Cocchi Americano that's eminently drinkable, and that's from someone who finds standard Negronis drinkable too.
The pastas were a highlight, also taking relatively straightforward ideas and adding a bit of spark. Garganelli verde ($17) with bolognese I'd eat any day, but when I can opt for garganelli with lamb bolognese and a blizzard of Pecorino, I'll go for the latter. Linguini ($19) with clams: tasty. Linguini with clams, loads of garlic, chilies and breadcrumbs? Thrilling. You get the idea.
Several of the main courses lacked the gut-level appeal of the earlier ones, but I'd happily eat any again. Particularly the bistecca tagliata ($24), which, on our visits, arrived with a beautiful crust, an almost uniform rosy pink when cut into. I couldn't decide whether I preferred bites of that, or the thick-cut, aggressively seasoned "Tuscan fries" that rode alongside. (I say "aggressively seasoned" as one who loves salt, but have to acknowledge that there's a very heavy hand with the stuff in this kitchen; some will appreciate it, others may not.) Our arctic char ($26) was moist and flaky over its deeply flavored broth, with pickled shallots and beautifully cooked hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; the chicken ($23) juicy throughout, its fennel, lemon, and olives reminding me of Sicily. Still, it wasn't what I remembered as I walked out the door.
L'Apicio is hardly a cheap restaurant. But it feels a generous one, with more arancini in a bowl than one person should probably eat, enough "fries" with a steak to share with the table. There's a sense of abundance, a sense of a playfulness, and a sense of good spirit. And even if some dishes fall short of others, that's more than enough to heartily recommend it.