Sunday, December 14, 2008

A little bit of everything at Bar Stuzzichini

On Saturday night, I scooped up my battered post-office-party body and headed down to the Flatiron district. My destination was Bar Stuzzichini, an Italian small-plates/tapas restaurant that I've been meaning to try for a while. I met my dining companions, AV and P, in the awkward entryway, and we were told our table was five minutes away from being ready, so we grabbed seats at the bar and ordered drinks (for me, a prosecco served in a generous two-glass portion; for AV and P, a Birra Moretti apiece). The five minute wait stretched to ten or fifteen, but finally we were fetched from the busy bar and brought, along with our drinks, to a semi-secluded booth, where we settled in for the night.

Stylish glass, with beaker of extra prosecco

A branded glass, so it HAS to be good.

We were given an amusing verbal "tour" through of the menu by our waiter, who was friendly but seemed a little uncomfortable in his position as waiter (case in point: his response to an inquiry of whether there was calamari on the menu was "not so much." Right.). We puzzled over the several hundred possible permutations that could be created from the menu options, finally made a decision, and placed our order.

In the meantime, there was bread. A runner brought over a strawberry-style wooden basket lined with an awkward piece of butcher paper. It was filled with pretty standard white bread with a crisp crust, and it went well with the olive oil poured from the bottle sitting on our table. Nothing superlative, but a good start nonetheless.

Bread, in brown paper and strawberry basket

And then our first courses arrived. We had selected the Stuzzichini Misti, a selection of five of their Italian tapas offerings meant to feed 2-3 people. As I was informed by an anonymous member of our dining trio that I "don't count as a person" in terms of the amount of food I typically consume, the 2-3 person designation seemed about right. Our vegetarian selections arrived first: we had chosen the melazane, or marinated eggplant; the zucchini alla scapece; and the carciofi, or fried artichokes. Of this bunch, the artichokes were the standout, crisp and salty and addictive. The eggplant and zucchini were both tasty, tender with a liberal application of olive oil and garlic.

Marinated eggplant, with explicit grill marks

Zucchini, beautifully presented

Spiky and delicious fried artichokes

Then the non-veg stuzzichini appeared. AV and P had chosen the meatballs and the steamed clams; the meatballs came in a tasty tomato sauce (which I sampled with the extra bread that was cheerfully delivered upon request), and the tiny clams rested in a bowl of broth. Apparently both dishes were pretty good, although I guess they weren't very interesting to me because upon examining my pictures from the evening I realize I completely forgot to photograph them. Cue mental image of me single-mindedly sucking down vegetables while contemplating my status as non-person and ignoring everything else.

Annnnnd on to the entree course. As a widely acknowledged expert in Italian cuisine, P chose the gnocchi all'Amatriciana as a test of the kitchen's skill (bad restaurant = bad, bad gnocchi). But apparently Bar Stuzzichini, or BS as I like to think of it, passed-- the gnocchi were approved with a (literal) thumbs-up.

Tiny gnocchi under a parmesan flurry

AV selected the night's pasta special, some sort of composed pasta involving eggplant, cheese, some sort of meat, tomato sauce, and ziti stacked Lincoln-log style into a brick. Though I did not taste the special, it was also met with a positive review, and the intricate cross-hatch ziti stacking lent the dish an amusing air. Or maybe that's just me.

"Lasagna-style" pasta in a spreading pool of sauce

My own entree was the arugula and ricotta salata salad. This ended up being surprisingly, almost startlingly delicious. I do love both arugula and ricotta salata, but both ingredients were excellent in this salad, and the vinagrette was light and tasty. Plus, unlike most of the other dishes (the stuzzichini especially), the portion here was generous. I'd highly recommend this salad and would certainly order it again on a repeat visit.

Tasty shreds of salty cheese and peppery arugula, a perfect match

Of course, given that BS is a small-plates restaurant, we had room for dessert. While the group had a collective hankering for tiramisu, the brief dessert menu included no tiramisu (bad! bad BS!). So we settled for two orders of orange olive oil cake and one chocolate mousse.

The chocolate mousse, AV's choice, was a rich, coffee-inflected mousse packed into a cold ice cream dish, which itself was perched on another square of that bizarre brown butcher paper (why??), and topped with chocolate crumbles. The mousse was tasty and extremely chocolatey. It was good on its own but best when paired with bites of the olive oil cake.

Intense, cold, fluffy chocolate

....and more brown paper.

The cake dessert a huge hunk of olive-oil cake accompanied by a scoop of fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream. The cake had a large, smooth crumb and a faint orange aftertaste; the confectioners-sugar-dusted crust was by far the best part of the slice. A forkful of cake along with a bit of chocolate mousse and a dollop of whipped cream composed the perfect dessert bite.

Tasty cake with the two best accompaniments, sugar and cream

Overall, I really liked BS. The food was solid (the arugula salad being a surprise winner), the service was friendly, and our booth was nicely secluded. The restaurant itself had good energy, from the lively bar back to the packed dining room. And there are rumors that the bathrooms sport black toilets, although my own visit to the ladies' revealed nothing more than a disappointing run-of-the-mill white toilet. Other reviewers have remarked that BS's food is a bit small and a bit expensive, even for New York standards, and I agree for the most part-- although my salad and certainly the olive oil cake were both very large. But the bottom line is if you visit BS, you'll likely have a very good meal and a lot of fun. And for that, it deserves four Offset Spatulas.

Bar Stuzzichini
928 Broadway, between 21st and 22nd Streets

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