Take, for example, the Minneapolis-based Buca di Beppo (and its local imitator, Gambucci's), which mixes the kitschy religious icons, Sophia Loren photos and Dean Martin tunes with big meatballs and a good sense of humor. Oddly, these places succeed where the real thing (like the 78-year-old Italian Gardens Restaurant, which closed in December) doesn't. It's much more fun, you see, to dine in a restaurant that pretends to be an old family restaurant than to actually go to an aging joint that's grown shabby and unfashionable.
Some Italian restaurants, such as Lidia's, don't play the nostalgia card, but in this intensely competitive restaurant market, it's rarely enough simply to offer good food and service. There has to be a little something extra. That's particularly true in the restaurant-saturated southern suburbs, where there's so little actual history that a touch of nostalgia is positively alluring.
That's a big part of the charm at the two-year-old Café New Yorker, which started as a combination nightclub and Italian-American restaurant but has evolved into something less ethnic and more cosmopolitan. It's New Yorkish, all right, but it evokes the Manhattan of another decade. A friend of mine, far too young to have visited Big Apple café society haunts like the Stork Club or El Morocco, loves Café New Yorker. "In my mind, it's what those places must have been like," she says. "Kind of flashy, but glamorous. The only difference is that you don't see any celebrities at Café New Yorker."
My friend is one of the snobbiest Johnson Countians I know. Before she started talking up Café New Yorker, I'd visited the restaurant once, before it opened. The only thing I remembered about it was a green fiberglass Statue of Liberty, slightly shorter than I, still half-encased in a cardboard crate. I also vaguely recalled silvery panels and shiny black woodwork. It seemed unlikely that this woman would adore the place, but she confessed that she did.
And suddenly I actually wanted to go there. I had assumed it was just another strip-mall Italian restaurant. Apparently, though, it was something extraordinary.
On my first visit, I brought along two friends, former New Yorkers Dan and Marilyn, and Dan's teenage daughter Julia. We were ushered into a dining room that was a weird but entertaining amalgamation of decorative details: one part 1950s Las Vegas glamour, one part hoity-toity Stork Club, the rest over-the-top glitz reminiscent of Studio 54, circa 1977. Marilyn, who had spent time at both the Stork Club and Studio 54, loved Café New Yorker's dramatic touches -- the sweeping curtains at the windows, the overstuffed banquettes upholstered in black-and-silver leatherette, the walls shimmering with silver leaf, the mirrored bar, the twinkling candles, a martini served in a chilled glass.
"This is a throwback to another time," Dan said as he studied a portrait of the Rat Pack -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop -- mounted on the back wall as if it were a Botticelli. "And it's an era I like."
The place manages to be tasteful and flamboyant, demure and vulgar at the same time. The Statue of Liberty is now painted silver and mounted quite regally near the bar, where it's still permissible to indulge in a cigar before or after dinner. There's even a menu of elegant cheroots, like a Macanudo Vintage VIII for $17.
Go ahead and light up, Bugsy. No one heard of political correctness during the Rat Pack years, and no one gives a damn about it here. There's not a vegan or low-calorie dish on chef Brett Evans' menu; bread is here to be buttered, and the featured soup, a silken bowl of topaz-colored lobster bisque, is, like the song lyric, as rich as Rockefeller. Maybe richer.
Since opening their restaurant in November 2001, O.J. McDonald and his son Trey have bought out their original partner, Louis Ribaste. Several chefs have worked here, including Jeff Worden, who now oversees the kitchen at Frankie's on the Plaza. But Evans has given the menu his own spin. "We served a primarily Italian menu when we opened, but Brett has put a more international flair on it," Trey McDonald says.
Evans still serves a couple of Italian offerings, but just one pasta dish. I vote for bypassing the linguini and going straight for Evans' slow-simmered osso buco, one of the best I've tasted. The veal falls off the bone into a soothing amber stock loaded with vegetables and folded swaths of pasta. And Dan was dazzled by Evans' tender medallions of venison, lightly ladled with a punchy green peppercorn and brandy sauce that packed a surprising kick. Julia ordered chicken spiedini, and the succulent hunks of meat arrived heaped atop a mound of garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans.
The potatoes could have been a lot more garlicky, though. Though he's operating in the suburbs, where fresh garlic is as loathsome as Hillary Clinton, I think Evans could get away with being more aggressive on the garlic press. That's particularly true when it comes to his juicy but bland roasted rack of lamb, crusted with herbs and parmesan. "Tell him to throw in a little more rosemary, too!" Marilyn said.
On a second visit, my friends Bob and Lou Jane and I had to contend with a few clunkers, starting with a "Manhattan calamari" that wasn't "crispy fried" as the menu promised; the squid was nicely seasoned but miserably soggy and greasy. More than making up for our disappointment, though, was the fluffy gnocchi appetizer, drizzled with a supple gorgonzola cream.
Bob loved his beef fillet, the Lady Liberty cut, which was served sizzling atop a puddle of rich cabernet reduction. However, Lou Jane was less entranced with her duck breast au poivre. The meaty circles of roasted duck were glazed with a cognac-peppercorn sauce that had been allowed to reduce on the stove too long; it was so salty that the bird was nearly inedible. I happily shared my Planko Crusted Chicken Roulade with her, and she liked the juicy chicken under its crunchy breaded crust. But we both thought the "herbed cream cheese" inside was too light on the herbs and far too heavy on the world's blandest dairy product. Fortunately, though, the accompanying fettuccine Alfredo, with bits of fresh red pepper, was gorgeously rich.
Also gorgeous was the dessert tray, artfully arranged with an assortment of ubiquitous sweets: an eggy crème brûlée (one of the few desserts actually prepared here); a cheesecake; a tiramisu; and a dense, flourless chocolate concoction. I enjoyed one of the pastries made by an outside baker, a moist carrot cake wrapped jelly-roll style around a cream-cheese icing and rolled in nuts. Sadly, though the thick slab of chocolate layer cake looked beautiful, it was a shade dry and had that sugary, commercial-bakery aftertaste, as dull as a Hostess Cupcake.
Ah, but the service was extremely pleasant and attentive, which is saying a lot in a venue that attempts to be somewhat formal in its visually theatrical but ultimately casual setting, and where the patrons are a motley mix of baby boomers during the early evening and younger couples later on, when the band or the disc jockey starts up. The restaurant's vibe might have gone out of style at the same time as Aqua Velva and Brylcreem, but in today's climate of cookie-cutter corporate restaurants, I liked Café New Yorker for having the guts to create a distinct personality of its own.