Sunday, October 19, 2008

Good food and startling service at Puttanesca

On Saturday evening, I met my friend BL for a casual bite to eat. We were looking for a relatively informal place in the 50s; I've always wanted to try Puttanesca, on 56th and 9th, so that's where we headed.

I arrived first and occupied our table in the main dining room. I had enough time to examine the decor, which was... bizarre. Part rustic-Italian, part there-are-violins-on-the-walls, and a whole lot of crystal chandeliers (?), the place seemed, well, confused. But no matter; we were here for the food, so that's where we focused our attention.

While I was waiting, a runner poured water into our glasses, and then the waiter came over to ask if I wanted to start with sparkling or still water. Then he looked annoyed that the water had already been poured. Ships sailing and all that, I guess.

Soon, a bread basket arrived. I had to ask for olive oil, but it arrived promptly, just as BL joined me at the table. We munched the bread, which was a pretty standard Italian loaf with an exceptionally crispy crust, dipping it into the pretty mediocre olive oil while we looked at the menu.

Got the job done

The waiter arrived for us to place our order. I asked if I could replace the romaine in my intended salad with arugula; in response, the waiter pointed to a completely different dish and said, "Do you want the pear salad?" Uh, no thanks, but can you replace the romaine with arugula? Turns out the answer was yes. BL ordered a salad and a pasta, and we were off.

About 3 minutes later, the waiter arrived with my salad. And nothing else. I sat with it in front of me, waiting for BL's salad to arrive; about 3 more minutes later, the waiter returned and asked BL if he had ordered a pear salad. Yes he had, in fact. So 3 more minutes passed and BL had his salad as well. We dug in.

My salad, the insalata della casa, was actually really good. It was a small mound of arugula with highly seasoned sun-dried tomatoes, herbed baby artichokes, chunks of fresh mozzarella, and two slivers of parmesan on top. This salad was very good; everything was really garlicky and delicious, and the mozzarella was fresh, even though it was clearly cow's milk and not buffalo milk mozz. The accompanying balsamic vinaigrette on the side was good, but I didn't even need it.

Good salad with lots of cheese

BL's salad was the pear salad (which the waiter had offered in lieu of my order). It had arugula, shaved pear, a big hunk of bleu cheese, and bacon. He seemed to enjoy it, taking his time making his way through the greens. Well, apparently according to the restaurant he was taking TOO much time, because when he was about halfway through, a runner arrived with his pasta. The runner stood there for a few seconds, then asked BL, "Are you done?" Um, no, he's not, he has half a salad left, but thanks for asking. Then the runner asked if he'd like the pasta now or if he should return it to the kitchen. Why, oh why, would you ever ask a restaurant patron that? Clearly there's only one answer, which BL sheepishly gave, which was to please return it to the kitchen until he finished his salad. Well, that's what happened; BL gulpted the rest of the salad while the runner hovered nearby, and the moment the greens were gone, the plate was swept away and the pasta plunked down in its place. Okay then.

A salad worth savoring

The pasta was the fettucchini ai funghi. I had a taste; the mushrooms were good and the pasta was well-cooked, but the white wine sauce seemed pretty thin. Average, I'd say.

The offending pasta

Once the pasta was finished, we declined the offer of dessert, paid our bill, and left. I've had similar problems with another Roberto Passon restaurant, his namesake-- the food was good but the service was atrocious. If Puttanesca could fix that, replacing clumsy, perfunctory, and often startlingly inept service with seamless service that melds into the background, the restaurant could become a go-to spot. After all, the food is good and the prices are quite reasonable. But until the service issues are fixed, I'll have to settle for awarding three Offset Spatulas, with hope for an improved future.

859 Ninth Avenue, at 56th Street

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