March 7 (Bloomberg) -- I almost walked out of Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, a spinoff of the namesake Italian spot a few blocks away.
After waiting 40 minutes for a seat by the dried pasta and gelato section (the new Il Buco includes a small market), we were deposited at a cramped communal table where we waited another 10 minutes for water and cocktail offerings.
We stared at waiters, busboys and managers. None made eye contact. No one had offered us food, beverage or Power Bars during the stand-up ordeal.
The place is simply overwhelmed. Our first course, which didn’t arrive until our second course was underway, was Iberico ham. The $40 serving tasted precisely like the Iberico at Tertulia, a more ambitious Spanish spot, where it costs $23.
Such is the unfortunate state of affairs at Manhattan’s 13-syllable Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, a Noho Mini-Me of Mario Batali’s Eataly, where the crowds are dense and the pasta as al dente.
I annoyed my date by ogling a deli counter filled with white anchovies. Sardines arrive tableside with pickled black trumpet mushrooms. Order them.
Il Buco distinguishes itself from New York’s crowded field of homey Italian spots by occasionally serving food on par with very good two-star restaurants.
Short ribs, thickly crusted with black, pink and yellow peppercorns, have the char of an epic steak and indicates spit-roasting for hours. Gorgeous.
If only dining at Il Buco weren’t so torturous.
You might be seated on tiny, backless stools, the noise levels might be deafening and you might have to steal a fork from a neighboring table to eat your pasta.
Typically, chefs serve ambitious fare at casual, stripped-down settings like this in exchange for more affordable prices. But Il Buco’s fare isn’t always cheaper. The short ribs are $2 more than at Tom Colicchio’s excellent Craft.
Is Il Buco the right environment for a $16 sandwich? The porchetta was laced with chewy, under-rendered fat; better versions are available in the East Village for $10.
Still, the pastas are almost perfect. Curly busiate is sublime, the twists engineered to trap the sauce of mint, almonds, capers and anchovies -- Sicily in a bowl.
Pair with a highly perfumed Rainoldi Sauvignon Blanc ($13) or a dry Saetti Lambrusco ($11). Wines, which might not arrive until you’re halfway through a course, are almost always poured without the offer of a pre-purchase taste.
Gnudi get a dose of balsamic at Il Buco to cut the ricotta richness. But spaghetti with bottarga is overcooked to the point of mushiness, with none of the mullet roe or assertive brine flavors that would justify the $21 price.
Fried rabbit, often gristly and bony, seems to have been bred in the plump style of a Perdue chicken. Honey crusted skin requires persistent and satisfying finger licking.
Chef Justin Smillie slices foie gras about a quarter-inch thick and drapes the liver over toast. It looks like a bologna canape, tastes like Michelin-starred dining. Sea salt and clementine marmalade makes it taste like an elegant English muffin.
Salt cod fritters resembling French fries are the right way to begin a meal; so is raw black bass, cut with the skill of a sushi chef and paired with Meyer lemon and pine nuts.
It’s almost as good as the mackerel crudo now being served at the quieter Il Buco flagship on Bond Street.
Quail is medium-rare and succulent; the $30 branzino is expertly filleted, with a soft, almost springy texture that recalls a more expensive Dover sole.
Remember Good Humor’s “Toasted Almond Bar”? Il Buco has a gelato that’s a dead ringer for the nostalgic flavor.
Then you tell the waiter you’d like a biscotto with your coffee; what he doesn’t tell you is that the brew already comes with one. Cha-ching. And your bill includes two glasses of wine you didn’t order. Time to flag down a waiter. Again.
The first Il Buco is a reliable, date-night destination.
The sequel is not.
Rating: * 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most dishes under $30.
Sound Level: Often 85 decibels or higher. My ears hurt.
Date Place: The flagship Il Buco is for dates; this one’s for masochistic dumping.
Inside Tip: Terrific chocolate pudding for dessert.
Special Feature: Rotisserie Label Rouge chickens for takeout; call 24 hours ahead to order.
Back on My Own Dime: No
Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria is at 53 Great Jones St. Information: +1-212-837-2622 or http://ilbucovineria.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: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.