Along with those old standards by which restaurants are judged -- food, décor, service -- I would like to propose that we also consider usability. The ways in which we use restaurants, their versatility and comfort, should be right up there in our analysis of them, and at least as important as what color the walls are. It's true that there's a place for the strictly special-occasion restaurant, but the restaurants we use more often, and the ones we integrate into our lives, should be highly usable above all else.
Some of the best and most memorable meals I have enjoyed have been simple plates of cheese and meat, consumed with decent table wine, over hours of conversation. Sitting on the sidewalks of Brooklyn or Paris, deep into the night in San Francisco, at restaurants that were highly user-friendly, and able to make the city an extension of our living spaces -- social, laid-back and comfortable. The food and wine served as objects of delight and as social lubricant, facilitating a public communal love affair with cheese and wine.
Enoteca Carbonari in Midtown aims to be such a restaurant. The word "enoteca" literally means "wine library," but in Italy and around the world, enotecas are casual restaurants where wine is the main attraction, with food to accompany. Enoteca Carbonari, which is the sister restaurant of Baronda next door, does everything in its power to conjure a true Italian enoteca, from the rustic wood, wrought iron and brocade of the interior, to the voluminous and mainly Italian wine list, to the menu.
Enoteca Carbonari offers a great selection of meats and cheeses, from four different salamis, to Serrano and prosciutto, to 14 varieties of Italian cheese. Paired with the wine list, that is reason enough to frequent the place. But the rest of the menu offers some temptations as well. Simplicity is the main aesthetic with the most winning dishes here.
Roast suckling pig, offered during the summer months as the filling for a sandwich at lunch, and during cooler months as a heaping entree, exists in that deliciously piggy interim between fatty and juicy. Meats here are roasted in the classic Italian rustic style, with little adornment and to great effect. The Italian sausage sandwich at lunch is filled with true Italian sausage rather than the gut-bomb variation popular at greasy lunch counters and state fairs. The meat hits all the tangy and spicy notes clearly and with perfect pitch.
Recent specials have been bright and lovely. A cold beet soup, which had the consistency of a puree rather than a liquid, came to the table an astonishing shade of fuchsia, topped with a dollop of mascarpone cheese. The dish was seasoned perfectly, the sweetness of the beets offset with the spike of cayenne, delicious despite the slightly disconcerting baby-food viscosity. The kitchen knows how to handle its fish specials as well, usually opting for lemon-based, classic northern Italian sauces. Olives and artichokes frequently take a central role.
There are uneven moments here and there. The crostoni pomodori, two slices of grilled bread under grilled cherry tomatoes with garlic and basil, was flabby and under-salted. The heat of the grill had taken the freshness out of the tomatoes, and the lack of salt, sparsity of basil, and crunchy, undercooked slices of garlic had done little to revamp the fruit. Conversely, a ravioli of braised short ribs would have been deep and delicious if it weren't swimming in salt.
The other disappointment came during dessert, where a chocolate cake made with ground almonds was gritty on the tongue, and a goat cheese cake was mealy rather than creamy. The only worthy option I found was a cannoli, a pastry more suited for an afternoon treat than an after-diner luxury. But paired with an espresso (there is no regular coffee, just espresso -- no complaints here), it's a charming finish to a meal.
Enoteca Carbonari could be just a tad more user-friendly. The lunch and dinner format makes just hanging out seem inappropriate until late in the evening, when the drinking really gets going. It's a shame the meats and cheeses aren't available all day. The lunch rush can be hectic, and because of customer demand and location, the restaurant needs to act like a Midtown lunch spot rather than an enoteca for those busy hours, and the meats and cheeses become a burden on the kitchen. I'm assuming that location is also the reason they are closed on Sunday, which is also a shame. Sunday is the day when taking time over a bottle of wine with friends makes the most sense. But the restaurant offers enough things to take pleasure in that it's hard to complain. The pleasures of getting lost in a wine list, and the small ecstasies of a rich cheese or a simply roasted pig are what eating is all about.
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