Mario Batali’s Del Posto could be the most expensive Italian restaurant in Manhattan, if not the U.S.
That’s the most impressive superlative I could muster after eating my way through what looks like a 24,000 square foot tribute to The Venetian hotel and casino in Vegas.
Opened in 2005, the marble-clad venue charges $95 for five courses, $125 for seven and $500 for a wine-paired “Collezione.” You need special dispensation to order your meal a la carte; the menu only offers these options.
The “collection” competes with Masa for the title of the city’s costliest meal. I would like to report that the Benjamins are justified, that Del Posto is to pasta what Masa is to sushi, but it isn’t. It’s not even Batali’s best (that would be the still-brilliant Babbo). Not with a Bolognese this boring, nor with soggy, inedible potato chips at the bar, and off-season asparagus in October.
So there’s a problem with the prices and the pomp.
Sometimes the excess at Del Posto is nice, if irrelevant: live piano playing could be heard when the hostess phoned to confirm a reservation. Sometimes the excess is oppressive. I waited several minutes during tableside service as the waiter dispensed with some 20 pots and utensils to assemble a fine but forgettable antipasto platter (frutti di mare, bagna cauda salad). Everything had been cooked in the kitchen anyway.
There is a $15 supplement for this pointless exercise that only made me recall the earlier, better Del Posto. Last year Batali and partner Joe Bastianich 86-ed the smaller, casual dining room and plowed $500,000 into renovations, none of which were apparent to me as I began revisiting this summer.
Del Posto bills itself as “the ultimate expression of what an Italian restaurant should be.” But rarely have my dining companions and I looked at each other so often in awkward silence and wondered, “Haven’t we had a better, cheaper version of this elsewhere?”
We had. Pumpkin dumplings didn’t have the same bite as a similar, $17 dish at Osteria Morini. Garganelli were coated with such a thin Bolognese it was almost undetectable, with none of the depth of flavor I recall having at ‘Inoteca for $16. A seafood stew, weirdly cooler than room temperature, had little of the satisfying Mediterranean warmth (or tasty Scottish langoustines) as the superior version at Marea.
Chef Mark Ladner’s pork loin here is no better than Babbo’s $29 chop. Other items make you wonder whether you could do better at home. Such was the case with an acrid penne with tuna, or a few cubes of lobster coated in tomato sauce.
And then there’s the 100-layer lasagna whose cloying sauce and mushy texture evokes the Hamburger Helper dishes of my youth. After making a reservation for the $500 “collection,” I learned it would include that ghastly dish. Could the chef accommodate a substitution? Nope. I cancelled.
This is not to say rustic food doesn’t have its place in fine dining. Del Posto’s foamless fare is refreshing and some of its Italian-American staples can’t be bested. The kitchen sends out tiny cups of caper-spiked gazpacho to awaken the palate -- a freebee I’d happily pay for.
Then you inhale fried calamari bathed in an absurdly rich sauce of olive oil and cherry peppers.
A veal chop for two has no peers in its silky, medium rare interior and its crispy, beefy exterior. The side dish? A salad of salty, heady veal-tongue. Just as good is a tasting menu cut of calf topped with meaty shreds of torn osso bucco.
A near-perfect meal starts to seem possible until service starts to fall apart in the later hours.
Where are my drinks? On one occasion a cocktail didn’t appear until we were almost done with our entrees. During another visit a sommelier took my exacting order for a Manhattan and returned with a glass of vino, which was unfortunate since Del Posto has one of the city’s best mixology programs.
In a final embarrassment, a wine steward recommended a $62 gewurztraminer. Sold. And fine -- until it appeared as $100 on the bill. Getting the check corrected took a degree of effort and explanation unbefitting of the first-rate restaurant Del Posto wants to be.
As it gets later, servers might forget to describe what sorbets you’re eating. They might omit the final plate of biscotti.
Better simply to come early and have a drink at the bar. Try the Vesper, a blend of Gordon’s gin, Jean Marc XO Vodka, Lillet blanc and lemon oil that somehow balances out perfectly. That’s why I’m willing to pay the $34 price tag. It’s the best Vesper out there. The rest of Del Posto needs work. Rating: **
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: Too high.
Sound Level: Too loud. 70-75 decibels.
Date Place: Try Babbo instead.
Inside tip: The must-have pasta dishes are spaghetti with crab and scallions and agnolotti with ramp butter.
Special Feature: Great bread with house-cured lardo.
Will I be back: Maybe for the stunning cocktails.
Del Posto is at 85 10th Avenue, at 16th Street. Information: +1-212-497-8090; http://www.delposto.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)