Tomika: “Why aren’t you on a diet?”
Dewey: “Because I like to eat. Is that such a crime?”
– From School of Rock
New York City – It’s not a crime, but it’s not helping my waistline on this trip… I do like to eat, and I’m sort of packing in places left and right, definitely eating more than my usual – I’m guessing I’ve put on 3-4 pounds since starting out two weeks ago – but back to BA tonight and back on “normal” eating… not a diet, but hey, it’s much easier to not overdo it when you’re at home than when you’re travelling, no? It also, of course, doesn’t help that I still have a lot of friends in the restaurant business here and they keep insisting on feeding me things – “try this, come on, just a few bites… tell me what you think…”. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I headed for Accademia di Vino, 1081 Third Avenue. Now, before one of my Italian readers sends me another note about butchering the Italian language (grammatically, it should be Accademia del Vino) – I didn’t name the place, and if you take a moment to think about it, it’s a play on words – Accademia Divino – a cross between the divine and a school of wine.
The place is big. It’s more or less underground (the bar is street level, the restaurant is down a flight of steps). New Yorkers are not known for being willing to put their posteriors in seats when they have to use stairs. But they’re doing it here – last Friday night at 9:30 when I got there the bar was packed tighter than a jar of Sicilian anchovies, every seat in the restaurant was full, and people were milling about in any free space there was waiting for their shot. It helps to know people, and within about two minutes of my arrival I’d been whisked to a just opened seat in the cantina, a second downstairs bar with high, communal tables. Here, I was rapidly accosted by a trio of twenty-something girls who insisted that I was Evan Handler (Harry Goldenblatt from Sex and the City) – something that has stangely come up several times on this trip – once in Dallas, and this is the third time since getting into New York… And the girls became more convinced of it over the evening, despite my protests to the contrary, as I got “danced” by my friends (full disclosure – I’ve now eaten there twice, once paying for the full meal other than the extras they sent, and once joining them for their end of evening meal, gratis). You guys decide…
On to the food, and it’s overall really quite good. I started off with a round of three cold antipasti and some red snapper crudo (Italian sushi drizzled with good olive oil). The tender cauliflower tossed with anchovies was delicious, perhaps they could have used a touch more browning in a roasting pan, but definitely up there in the cauliflower world. The simply pan roasted brussels sprouts with parmesan and breadcrumbs were one of the best sprouts salads I’ve run across – so simple and so good. The seven bean salad was a miss – normally, it turns out, the Accademia chef, Kevin Garcia, uses specially raised beans that are imported by Chef Cesare Casella, but there’s some problem with the latest shipment which is being held up somewhere (no doubt the beans are suspected of being a terrorist plot), and they’ve had to source other beans that, well, simply aren’t as good. The crudo was delicious, and served up with a nice shaved fennel salad – I have to admit I could have done without the cold cylinder of gummy rice on the side, and did.
Then the dance started – and sous chef Alex, who was in charge of the kitchen Friday, being in the middle of portioning up some just received amberjack, decided to send me out a duo – braised amberjack cheeks and roasted amberjack tail, both meltingly tender, flavorful, served atop salt blocks (a trend I’m not fond of, but so be it, it’s a trend right now), and just wonderful. A bit on the Asian side rather than Italian, but hey, why not?
Moving on to the main event – Kevin’s gotten known over the years for his grilled pizzas, and this amazingly good robiola cheese and black truffle pizza is a dead-on winner. I didn’t want to share, but I was getting full, so the friends helped out… On my other visit, I tried the putanesca pizza, a cheeseless version, with all the good, spicy ingredients that go into that sauce – tomato, chilies, capers, anchovies, and garlic – what a great idea!
I couldn’t handle dessert on the first evening, the second evening with just a pizza in me, I went for the fudge brownie – not a typical Italian dessert, but topped with a strange looking swirl of some sort of gooey sauce (which, bluntly, looks like a fake dog poo sitting atop the brownie), and surrounded by a wow cherry butterscotch sauce, made for a great finish.
Overall, high marks for the food, with a few very minor missteps. Service attentive and friendly, and seemingly so for others as I watched the room. A space like an old Roman enoteca that I like visually – I have to admit, I’m not fond of high energy restaurants teeming with people when I’m dining, and tend to feel a trifle overwhelmed as everything swirls around me, but if you don’t mind that style of space, and clearly a lot of folk don’t, it’s a hit.