Not two days after dining at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria did I happen to meet a girl who worked as a waitress there. Upon recounting my experience to her (including effusive accolades for our deft waiter), I realized that maybe I liked it better than I left thinking I had. I was never wholly won over by the original Il Buco (and guys, anywhere that is rated as one of The Most Romantic Restaurants in New York City probably isn't), and I didn't feel like Alimentari fell so far from that tree. But upon reconnaissance, I'm thinking I just had my expectations set far too high. There was quite a bit of buzz about how great it was- that the food was so pure, sincere, elemental. I should have paid more attention to those details rather than the hype, because while Alimentari might not stun you with its originality, it should embrace you in authenticity.
Playing off its marketplace sensibility, the dining room feels mercantile. In fact, we sat just aside the market counter- a glass refrigerator cave showcasing their specialty cheeses and baskets of artisanal, organic grain breads for sale along with salumi, oils, and other Italian specialty products. Better off buying a loaf here to take home, too. They'll bequeath you a basket while dining here, requested or not, and then CHARGE you for it. At least that's what happened to us. We didn't ask for bread, but it ended up on the bill. Not Cute. Even though it was great bread. You shouldn't pay for what you didn't request. Next thing, they'll start charging for salt. I'm sure they sell that from the Alimentari too. They even sell their gelato... but we'll get to that later.
I started things off, once again (I promise I'll stop ordering these soon) the blistered padron peppers. These had a nice lemony tang, and the classic salty crusty, but several of them had an elevated Scoville ranking: a covetous diner next to us ordered them because they looked so good, but almost fell off her chair after having bit into a particularly spicy one and incinerated her uvula. I tried reassuring her that not all of them had the same level of punch, but she wasn't having it.
The Lattuga salad was a much less risky choice, although the sizeable white anchovies slung over little gem lettuces certainly left their pungent imprint, though the marinated almonds and radishes were flavorful enough to counter some of their funk.
Of the Primi (there were six to choose from) we chose a Sicilian Calamaretti, the pasta reminiscent of rounds of tentacles and sauced in a hearty swordfish ragout with golden raisins and crunchy green Castelvetrano olives. Primi can easily double as main courses, too, slightly larger than a typical Italian serving but not Olive Garden-American huge, either. You might be uncomfortably full if you had this along with any of the Secondi, though. The salt baked Branzino was a thoroughbred, this
one. He stretched languidly on a stark white platter all his own, but for some oven-crisped sprigs of thyme and fragrant halved lemons, poised to be sprinkled and spritzed over its pristinely white and unmatchedly juicy flesh. A crumble of salt from its crust is all that is left to achieve what was the most perfect whole fish I've ever had- something I usually find disappointingly murky and underwhelming.
Now see? That was easy. The Il Buco family is starting to win me over already.