Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tapas, Italian Style

928 Broadway, at 22nd Street
(212) 780-5100


Sometimes, it's hard to tell the one you love how you really feel. No, not Spoon, and no, not the delightful Bittman sisters, with whom we enjoyed a fun meal Friday evening. For months now, however, we've been meaning to do a proper review of Bar Stuzzichini, one of Spoon & Fork's favorite new spots and a welcome addition to the Flatiron's already brimming culinary wellspring. After dozens of meals over the past year, sampling virtually everything on the menu, and a good chunk of the wine list, well, it's time to get some things off our chest.

When it opened in June 2007, Bar Stuzzichini offered a refreshing proposition, different from the "family style" meals associated with so many Italian restaurants. Its specialty is rustic "stuzzichini," small plates, not unlike tapas, with each plate offering a few bites, ranging from $5 and $10 per, or, the house deal of any combination of five plates for $22 (for two people), or $40 (for four to six people). A nice selection of entrees are served sparely as well, without sides or garnish, alone on white plates.

It's a lovely way to eat, Spoon and I agree. Over the course of a meal, one can enjoy many flavors and textures. It's visually appealing, too, if tough on the dishwashers. You can really appreciate the richness of Italian cuisine when it lays in front of you, simply presented, on small plates, unspoiled by a careless side dish. The wine list, meanwhile, is outstanding, mostly Italian vintages, particularly southern Italian, available by the bottle, glass and "quartino," a beaker-like vessel that holds about two glasses. For me, however, it's hard not to go with an ice-cold Peroni, served in a tall glass. They also prepare a perfect cocktail at the bar, for those unpersuaded by the wine list. The room is nice, lots of wood, with an elegant banquette, illuminated by hanging wagon-wheel lamps, although Frank Bruni's one-star review called the restaurant's opaque light "unflattering."

By now, Spoon and I have our favorites: a typical meal for us includes a fantastic grilled octopus; scamorza, a fried, spiced piece of aged cheese that's a mouthwatering must; grilled prawns, served with the head on; clams presented in a garlicky broth, ideal for sopping up with fresh-baked bread; and a plate of crisp green olives. For entrees, the restaurant serves the best braciole (pictured) outside of your Nonna's kitchen. Spoon has been addicted to the orechiette with cauliflower and bread crumbs since the beginning, though lately the crispy lemon chicken has taken a toe-hold. Other offerings include an excellent bone-in rib-eye steak served with a little spice, a decent rabbit, and striped bass cooked in parchment paper.

Friday's meal, aside from the exceptional company, was fairly typical. Yet Spoon and I both left the restaurant with a feeling that perhaps all is not quite right in Bar Stuzzichini's world. To start, the service was lackluster, and over the past year has been very hit-or-miss. One meal, a server may be very well-engaged, others, barely present. On Friday, it was the latter. I never received a second Peroni (though it showed up on the bill), despite repeated efforts to flag down our waiter in the hardly busy room. We ordered stuzzichini for four, and four of the dishes were appropriately doubled in size, except for the olives: there was only one small dish instead of two. Only one basket of bread, too, and the end piece I had was stale and chewy. Erratic service can be overcome or at least tolerated in some restaurants, but not at Bar Stuzzichini, where ordering and enjoying the menu requires a certain level of engagement from the server.

Of general concern, after more than a year the restaurant has not changed its menu, and there are no specials. For regulars like us, it is beginning to seem like the formula is set and that's it. In fairness, we usually have our meal plotted out before we walk in. But it's beginning to feel like Bar Stuzzichini isn't trying. Why not offer some seasonal specials? Serving small plates of stuzzichini surely offers an excellent opportunity to branch out, especially considering the restaurant is just six short blocks from the Union Square Green Market.

Judging from the dwindling number of diners, we're not alone in our assessment. When we left at 9:30 on Friday night, the restaurant was less than half-full. It could be that we were between seatings, or that numbers tend to fizzle in summer, when patrons leave town. Nevertheless, Bar Stuzzichini, which was packed front-to-back for months following its opening, is less and less so. On a recent Sunday night, we were virtually alone dining in the bar room. That scares us a little, and we have to wonder if the novelty of "Italian tapas" has worn off for newcomers, if the regulars are getting bored, and if those on the fence have been knocked off by the inconsistent service.

If Bar Stuzzichini needs a cautionary tale, it needs only to look around the corner (ahem, Rocco, Banana and Caviar, and now Borough). While Bar Stuzzichini is a far cry from Jeffery Chodorow's brand of hubris, it has made some questionable choices of late, most recently the addition of sidewalk seating. Situated along a treeless stretch of battered pavement that features a bus route, a view of the road construction just a block away, and a subway grate, it offers all the allure of picnicing in a parking lot. We recommend the bar room, as it is generally more festive than the back room, less grimy than the sidewalk, and the service tends to be better.

Despite the restaurant's inconsistency, we still recommend Bar Stuzzichini. Even when it slips, it manages to deliver at a fairly high level. Last night, however, I asked Spoon if we would be such regular patrons if the restaurant was, say, across town, rather than a few steps from our door. The honest answer: probably not. That's too bad. Bar Stuzzichini burst on the Flatiron scene a little over a year ago, and it earned both our business and its considerable buzz. Lately, though, it seems to be coasting, and in a neighborhood brimming with esteemed restaurant competition, including a lot of consistently solid Italian, from newcomer Lunetta, to staples like Beppe, Novita, Georgio's, and Pizza Fresca, there is never time to coast.--F

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