The other day, I was having lunch with some girlfriends on the roof at Soho House (a friend is a member, they still haven't let me in) and the issue of sharing food came up. One of my friends was recounting a lunch meeting with a work associate (someone she has known and worked with for many years), in which he ordered three bowls of pasta for lunch at A Voce. (This is understandable because the pasta there is so good there, that you really should, if possible, order them all.) In any case, she had ordered a beet salad and some scallops and at some point during the course of their meal, she had asked if he wanted to try some of her food. He declined her offer, and promptly went back to work on his buffet of pastas, neglecting to offer her a taste of any of Andrew Carmellini's Grandmother's ravioli.
"Are you kidding?" I asked. "That's practically criminal! How could he not share?" My friend nodded in agreement, "I know!" she said. "I was dying."
Her story opened up a discussion about eating in New York City, and how common and almost ritualistic sharing has become. I started to say that I could not remember the last time I had dinner where I didn't share what was on my plate, but then it did jar an old memory of a blind date I had years ago at The Red Cat. My friend Court had set me up. The guy was nice looking, and from what I could tell from our dinner conversation, he was smart, and interesting, so I was happy about that. He was having steak frites, and I was having some sort of fish. I took a bite and commented on how good it was, and offered him some. He shook his head no, and returned to his steak, the juices pooling under it, the hot, golden fries seducing me more than he was. "Do you mind if I try your steak and have a fry?" I asked, reaching over to pluck one off his plate, and smiling. He was not smiling. "Actually, I'm really not into sharing my food," he said, shooing my hand away and returning to his beautiful steak and fries. "Hope that's okay." No, it was not okay. How could he deny me a fry? I practically recoiled in my seat. And if this was the way he was at the dinner table, I certainly didn't want to take it to a place where sharing and giving might be more important. That was our first and last date.
The concept of sharing is practically law in New York City dining circles. It's a practice that's grown into tradition because of a combination of things. First, there's been a steady decline in formality of dinner service over the past five years. Of the spate of restaurants opening this fall, not too many are banking on four-star service. The bulk of them are more or less two star settings, casual chic spots that are variations on the seasonal American eatery, the rustic trattoria, the gastro-pub, or locavore's tavern; the sort of vibe and setting makes sharing second nature. Second, being that New York is a competitive town, there's always a bit of orderer's envy at the dinner table. No one wants to feel like they've ordered poorly and somehow whatever the person is eating to your left or right always seems better than what's on your own plate. But when I think of the root of this sharing trend, I think of the wine bar, a concept built on the concept of tasting and sharing with platters of meats, cheeses and assorted small plates to share.
All of this goes a long way to bring us to the latest variation on this theme, Accademia Di Vino, the Upper East Side's newest Italian enoteca, restaurant, and pizzeria. The restaurant is a sharer's paradise. Chef Kevin Garcia's menu offers no less than half a dozen shareable ways to start a meal. There's hot and cold antipasti ($4-$12), tramezzinis (sandwiches with crusts cut off stuffed with the like of shrimp salad and radish, to sopressata and salsa verde, $7 each), crudo (tuna, scallops or kobe beef, $4 per piece), tartares (in tuna, salmon and steak, $12 each), carpaccio (in the same varieties as tartare, $14), pannini (arugula and proscuitto, to roasted pork and fried capers, $8), assorted cheeses, meats, and salads. It's quite an exhausting selection, but the variety allows the restaurant to serve as a bustling wine bar (upstairs), a rustic, exposed brick pizzeria and restaurant (downstairs), and to offer the neighborhood all sorts of dining options for many return visits.
While the menu is massive, the draw here is already the grilled pizzas, a recipe and technique Garcia, who also heads the kitchen at ‘Cesca and was most recently on Mark Ladner's team at Del Posto, learned while at Al Forno in Rhode Island. (He cooked with the late Vincent Scotto, one of this mentors and friends.) These are chewy, slightly charred flatbreads that are thrown in varying shapes of oval onto a hot grill, and served sliced up and ready to share. There are a half dozen varieties that range from amazing to good, including a rather dry sausage and broccoli rabe ($15) and a spectacular tomato, basil and mozzarella pie ($14), quilted with a shimmering layer of gooey melted cheese, and garnished with sliced yellow and red pear tomatoes, and pulpy puddles of tomato concassé. I'd put in an order for one as soon as you sit down and so you have it to share with the table while you decide on what else to eat.
We decided on one of the carpaccios to start as well, the Manzo-sheets of brilliant ruby red beef ($14), aggressively seasoned with capers, shaved fennel, onion and mint, with shaved Parmesan and a gentle touch of truffle oil, not enough to overwhelm, just enough to raise an eyebrow. The carpaccio went nicely with the escarole salad ($11) which was perfect-ruffled greens dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and showered with silvers of red onion, a smash of toasted hazelnuts, a few shavings of Pecorino and a whiff of mint. Garcia's fat and cheesy proscuitto and Parmesan fritters (guaranteed to clog arteries in a single bite for all of $12!) also wound up in the mix, as Craig and I cannot seem to resist a food that combines cheese, ham, and a deep fryer.
With our first courses, we had a few glasses of white-I went for the fresh and crisp Gavi di Gavi, F. Piccolo Piedmont ‘06 ($10), and Craig decided on something a bit more bold, the Greco di Tufo, from Feudi di San Gregorio, Campania 05 ($5). As we drank our wine and cleaned our plates, the crowds continued to descend like slinky cats to saucers of milk. The place is already wildly popular and attracts boisterous groups of friends in addition to intimate parties of two, all passing antipasti, pizzas and pastas to share. The crowds give the restaurant a terrific energy, despite its windowless subterranean locale. The brick-arched, wood-planked rooms feel cozy and sexy, like dining in a wine cellar in Tuscany, not in the basement of a restaurant on Third Avenue within shooting distance of Bloomingdale's. From what I saw the other night, it feels like this place is here to stay. I hope so, considering the space has been the home of many short-lived projects, including most recently, Mainland. But this formula-crowd-pleasing Italian-seems to be working. It's also bringing in industry folks. Egi Maccioni, Siro's wife, was dining at the table next to us with some lady friends. Danyelle Freeman, aka Restaurant Girl, was in to review the place for the Daily News, and stopped by to say hello, as did Josh Wesson, the wine guru and founder of Best Cellars. Craig and I had just come from the BLT Market opening party, so the entire night was turning into a big cocktail soiree, which was fun, but also made for a nice hangover.
That hangover probably also had something to do with the bottle of wine that followed the glasses of white. With our pasta course we ordered a bottle of Barbera D'Asti-Ca di Pian, La Spinetta Piedmont ‘05 ($42), a balanced juicy-tart red that matched up well with the bavette caccio e pepe ($16), and the garganelli with chicken sausage and zucchini ($18). The pastas were both exquisitely cooked, just tender enough without being mushy. The bavette, long ribbons of spaghetti, was delicate and creamy at first, and then surprisingly peppery and bold in the finish. The garganelli was also wonderful, ridged tubes cut on the bias and coated in a fresh sweet tomato and cream sauce tossed with moons of sautéed zucchini and a few hunks of meaty sausage.
Garcia's menu also includes a selection of a half-dozen secondi, including steak, chicken, and pork, as well as salmon and tuna. We shared the grilled veal chop ($35), which was salty and peppery in the char, and juicy and lusciously moist in the middle. Our waitress brought us steak knives, but there was no need. My butter knife worked just fine. For dessert, we had the fluffy lemon ricotta cheesecake on a graham cracker crust ($8), which we also shared. (Craig is very good at sharing.)
My only real issue with the restaurant relates to its name-Accademia di Vino. It makes me picture a classroom with a blackboard and lots of decanters, not a spirited restaurant that's already packed with passionate fans of those bubbly grilled pizzas and homemade pastas. To be sure, there's certainly a focus on wine. The list, curated by owner and wine director, Anthony Mazzola, numbers 500 bottles (from $28 and up). Charlie Arturaola, Director of Wine Education and Events, who was most recently wine director for Gulf Bay Hospitality in Florida, will soon be leading wine classes as well. But I find the name Accademia di Vino to be rather sterile, and also quite difficult to wrap my tongue around. Then again, maybe it doesn't really matter, as long as everyone inside is sharing.