Gottino’s charming storage cellar.
I finally got to Gottino.
Even though it’s one of the most talked about, best reviewed Italian wine bars in this restaurant-stuffed city, and is only a few blocks from my apartment, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to make it through the door. Gottino has been open for a little more than a year. I’ve walked by in early evening and seen a mob jammed around the bar, people pushing for space. The place was not for me. I don’t like loud, cramped eateries. I was, however, interested in trying some of chef Jody Williams’s potted terrines of salt cod, salmon, or chicken liver or pork. Those things appeal to me. I also liked the sound of her crostini selection.
The problem with a wine bar that serves serious food, as I see it, is that we’re not a tapas nation. We don’t snack at six and then eat a real dinner at ten or eleven the way they do in Spain. So when we go to a wine bar, we try to make a meal of it, and $40 worth of little nibbles later, not including wine (which at Gottino runs around $12 to $18 a glass), we may have managed to fill up, but mostly with salt and fat. These places always seem to me more like troughs than places for humans, who generally like to socialize when they eat. I thought, maybe I should just go to Gottino one evening all by myself and brave the crowd to taste stuff. That sounded lonely and depressing. Instead I decided to try lunch.
Not only is lunch at Gottino uncrowded, but you get to see how pretty the little place actually is. When jammed with people, it looks like any other trattoria or bistro-in-a-box prefab restaurant in the city, nice but kind of soulless. But when you can actually see the walls and the floor, the space looks like it was fashioned by a real person, with mismatched seats and naturally weathered wine memorabilia. The wall across from the bar is decorated with white porcelain grandma platters, and over one of the little tables in the back are framed photos of Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Joe Di Maggio, a touch you’d sooner expect at pizza parlor. But the place is elegant too, with a white marble-topped bar, something you’d find in Milan, and a gem-toned glass-fruit chandelier purchased from my friend Claude’s Provençal pottery shop a few blocks away.
Gottino is almost all bar, except for four little tables in the rear (each one laid out with a basket of walnuts and hazelnuts and a nutcracker, just like my grandfather used to always set out on his coffee table) and, beyond those, a small outside garden, which on the freezing day I was there was closed to humans but loaded with house sparrows and squirrels, hoping I’m sure to get an olive oil–soaked crust of toast (I threw a few out to them). There’s a downstairs wine and vegetable storage area that you go through to get to the bathroom. I found it unpretentious, filled in a naturally abundant way with stuff they really need, like baskets of apples, walnuts, and butternut squash and cases of wine, stacked and stuck in every which way. It didn’t have the movie-set look you sometimes get in places that are trying hard to be rustico.
I arrived at about 1:30 p.m. There were a few singles at the back tables with laptops and platters of artichoke bruschetta and a few people sitting at the bar reading newspapers and drinking espresso. My sister and I took one of the little tables and cracked walnuts whose shells kept falling to the floor. Gottino at lunch, at least for the moment, is very peaceful.
The only problem with going there then is that I usually don’t like drinking wine at lunch, and since it’s a wine bar, you don’t really get the full experience unless you have a glass, at least. Actually nobody in there was drinking wine, except for a wine salesman and a few employees hovering around him for a tasting. Lots of coffee is served at lunchtime, and I have to tell you, anchovies taste really bad with cappuccino. Next time I’m having wine. I’ll pretend I’m on vacation.
The lunch menu focuses on good toppings on toast in various sizes, from crostini to bruschetta to panini, plus salads, a daily soup, a daily frittata, and, the day I was there, Gottino’s now-famous rabbit pot pie. You also can order salumi and cheese. You have to go in the evening to get the little pots of chicken livers or boar pâté and certain other small plates such as braised tripe.
I was happy to discover that the portions weren’t mini. I ordered a salad of pears, gorgonzola, and greens that was a good size, and they were very generous with their excellent gorgonzola. I also chose a crostini topped with artichokes seasoned with mint. My sister had lentil soup, vegetarian but richly flavored, and crostini with stracchino cheese, roasted grape tomatoes, and capers. She must have snatched up the last bowl of lentil soup; after her order the waiter announced to another table that the special soup was chestnut. The menu is cheese-heavy, just about everything including some type of cheese. That is fine with me, and all the cheeses I tasted were excellent, especially the stracchino, which was tangy and ripe. We also ordered a crostini with anchovies and butter (I can never resist anchovy anything on any menu). It was intense and delicious, but in the end I found I had requested a huge amount of food (I’m always afraid of not getting enough at a wine bar). I’m sure I would have been able to finish it all had I ordered a nice cool glass of Sicilian Grillo instead of the cappuccino.
I’d like to go back and try the smoked prosciutto, prune, and tallegio panini, and also the Brussels sprouts salad with pecorino and walnuts. I have to admit I like Williams’s style, as it reminds me of my own cooking, where I try to balance strong and gentle flavors in each dish, leaning on Southern Italian tastes. Even her signature walnut pesto crostini was something I had a version of in my last book. I wrote it way before her place opened, so you know I didn’t pilfer it.
52 Greenwich Avenue (near Charles Street)
New York, N.Y.