In The Midnight Hour: 'inoteca

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[Photos: Zachary Feldman]

As steadfastly as the visitors and residents of the Lower East Side have changed, the crowds at Jason and Joe Denton's 'inoteca have kept constant. Opened in 2003 following the success of 'ino, the prim enoteca continues to stand as a beacon for the neighborhood, serving its smattering of small plates and smartly curated wines to a clientele that grows more diverse by the year. Busy most times of day, the menu of elevated rustic Italian fare seems made for a midnight nosh, and with a nightly closing time of 3am, hordes of the nocturnal come for exactly that.

That the Denton brothers chose this as their prized sheep to clone is a testament to its formula. And sure enough, where their upscale Bar Milano failed, 'inoteca cucina has morphed into a bustling, vivacious younger sister to the original. In a city with such strong single-focus drinks establishments, their 323 cocktail—which mingles rosemary-infused Hendricks gin, reduced balsamic vinegar, basil, lemon juice and fruits of the season—remains one of my favorite tipples.

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At 1:30am on Sunday, we snagged the last seats in the house—a window seat two-top that looked out onto Ludlow street. And oh, the things we saw. A boisterous party of inebriated ladies seemed to be celebrating a number of things all at once, as their revelry reached a fever pitch several times throughout our meal. After receiving our menus, we snapped to attention as two men rapped at the window, trying to get the attention of a mother and daughter seated next to us. The sidewalk lotharios attempted to woo the women outside until the mother put her hands up and mouthed the words, "She's four-teen!". And as we dug into our first dishes, a group of police officers huddled around a cab and extracted a drunk fellow who tried to reason his way out, narrowly escaping a drunk and disorderly charge. The excitement never stops on the LES!

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Without further interruptions, we turned our attention to the food. A beet salad ($12), topped with hazelnuts, orange supremes and a swatch of sheep's milk cheese was massive enough for sharing and a bargain for the price. The crimson root dominated the dish, its earthy sweetness offset by the hazelnuts' nutty crunch and all but overpowered by the brightness of the orange slices. Mint was advertised as an ingredient, but did little to make itself known—a shame, as it would have added a welcome herbal component to the dish.

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From the Tramezzini section, we ordered the mortadella and pickled red peppers ($7). It arrived as a trio of dainty Italian tea sandwiches with a paltry amount of filling-to-bread ratio. The cubes of red pepper dotted each sandwich, and with nothing to hold the peppers in place, they fell out before the bread hit our lips. It felt a bit slapdash, like something a passive-aggressive nonna would feed a disappointing grandchild.

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Fried risotto balls known as suppli ($11) are the most expensive of the "fritto" dishes. They're smaller than arancini and filled with caciocavallo, a cow's milk cheese which melted like a dream and exhibited a cartoon-like stretch when pulled. For all its pleasing crunch, the sum of its creamy parts fell short even when combined with the crispy sage leaves hidden underneath.

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One of 'inoteca's signature dishes, the truffled egg toast ($12, with bottarga), sadly left us wanting. The ingredients all tasted fine enough, but the toast itself was so tough to get through that our knives hit the plate with a clank. We opted for a dusting of bottarga—cured and dried tuna roe—sprinkled over the top, which added a smoky funk that bolstered the runny egg yolk and tender grilled asparagus.

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After so many carbs, we eschewed the panini and looked to the composed plates. The gravy accompanying the polpette ($12) was ideal, with a deep, onion-y richness; the meatballs themselves rather firm due to an absence of fillers like ricotta or raisins. Orange zest—a touch of brilliance sprinkled on top—added a brightness that lifted these balls right off the plate. A little dense, but you'd be too to ignore them.

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The Affogato ($5) is always a great way to end a meal, but the price point on this caffeinated bad boy makes it all the more desirable. The espresso's bitterness shines through rich vanilla gelato to create a simple and balanced dessert.

'inoteca has ingrained itself into the fabric of New York's late-night scene, and with it, Joe and Jason Denton have made an enduring mark on the neighborhood—by far one of the best places in the city to receive high-quality service and dining under the moon's glow...provided you can get a seat.

'inoteca

98 Rivington Street, New York NY 10002 (map) 212-614-0473
inotecanyc.com