Monday, December 10, 2012


We were duped.  We were influenced by a Zagat 24 hanging in the window.  Yelpers waxed poetic, stars were abundantly awarded with wild abandon via a perfunctory smartphone Google search in the blustery cold of a late hungry evening.  The place was sparsely attended, but it was... well, there we were.  So we ventured inside.

It is an ugly, ugly room that looks like they ran out of money halfway through the buildout.  Poorly applied Venetian plaster and Ikea-esque lamps adorn the spottily lit room, spacious as it is.  Roberto Paciullo is the chef in this second location of his, the first being the acclaimed Roberto's in the Bronx.  Unfortunately, if the original Roberto's is as good as "they" say it is, all he's brought with him from the Bronx is the area code, because Zero Otto Nove is pretty dismal on all fronts.

Except if you're just getting pizza, which seemed to be what pretty much everyone else was doing.  There were couples whisking in and out with their square cardboard boxes, and tables of families enjoying multiple pies.  We ordered a simple margarita, wads of fresh mozzarella melted into bubbly white islands in a robust, tangy sauce garnished with whole basil leaves.  Its crust was a thing of beauty, dotted with smokey blisters of char and a pleasant, pliant chew.  Boasting its own yeasty flavor, it carried beautifully its simple toppings.  A restaurant so sprawling as is Zero Otto Nove would be real estate wasted acting simply as a pizza place, but that's the only dish we tried that really justified its existence.

The leather bound menu reads like any typical Amer-Italian place- insalate, zuppe  and salumi.  We skipped those in favor of an artichoke antipasto, the vegetable quartered and braised and served atop extremely salty, oily hunks of toasted bread and scattered with flavorless, rubbery shreds of a cheese claiming to be taleggio.  But the 'chokes themselves were a little bland without that gluttonous partner.

We  also tried out a seasonal pasta: a rigatoni with butternut squash, peas and porcini.  The pasta tubes were well cooked, but the squash wasn't present in chunks, only cooked down and incorporated into a gummy sauce, sticky with a scant number of steamed (read: not that flavorful) porcinis and peas.  The "maybe we should've ordered"s were bursting forth as vehemently as the flavors were not.  

Forging ahead, an entree of baccala al forno came with a forewarning of saltiness... which retrospectively was hardly the problem.  The fish, in certain bites, was tough and fishy, the sauce a generic tomatoey sludge studded with capers.  Big wedges of potato elbowed their way in here, a bit floury and not really helping out the situation much. The humongous casserole could have easily served three people, though.  Speaking of capers, a side dish described
 as escarole saltato with capers was more like capers saltato with escarole, the vegetable and the briny little orbs almost in equal proportion, and making for strange mouthfuls.  As well, the leaves were not quite cooked down enough to tenderize them, so they fought the assertive seasoning with an awkward freshness, crying for a more delicate treatment.

We were happy enough with dessert, however, although I wouldn't make it a destination for sweets.  The list featured pretty typical Italian-ite dolci: tiramisu, gelati  and sorbetti, biscotti and the like.  We tried the most inventive sounding one: a (totally unseasonal- but then, none of the menu is) strawberry and hazelnut bombe, dusted generously with powdered sugar.  A tasty little finale to an otherwise desultory meal.  Which is why, my friends, you take your advice from trusted sources.... chefs, journalists... ME.  Not Yelp.

15 West 21st Street
p. 212-242-0899

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