Il Posto proves worth the wait
My notes from my most recent meal at Il Posto are almost indecipherable — hasty scrawls on the back of an envelope I'd found in my car, on a credit-card receipt from my pocket. Moscato, they say. Froot loops, Van CA, stale, bur-stuffed chix boob, peach salt, shirt cuffs and Me and My Monkey. These notes make sense to me; they are burrs in the brain, deliberately stuck — irritants at the core of a pearl of memory. Written in cant — half line-cook slang, half critical shorthand — they are like coded messages to myself. And even if my handwriting is atrocious (it's tough enough to write fast, standing up at the urinal or while pacing, cigarette in one hand, in front of a restaurant on a busy night), the haste with which the notes were written is part of the recollection. Pancho peroni oyster mush. I understand this, even if no one else ever could.
A year ago, after my first dinner at Il Posto, my notes were much simpler. There was just one word after the restaurant's name: Wait.
My first dinner at Il Posto was a disappointment, and left me in no hurry to come back. I barely remember the food — a risotto of some description, tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, which I'd been told by a server had been flown in that morning from Italy because the chef, Andrea Frizzi, preferred the taste of the Italian milk, the resultant Italian cheese — and that was a problem. Great meals? They stick like gum on your shoe. I can remember vividly first meals elsewhere, even after five, six years: the chicharrones at Benny's on my first afternoon at work, the lobster ravioli in Pepto-pink sauce from one of my first review dinners. But memories of that first Il Posto meal barely clung long enough to see me out the door.
What I liked about the place was its location, crammed between other bars and restaurants on 17th Avenue, their patios shoulder to shoulder. I also liked the concept behind it — a purely and unapologetically Italian trattoria with chalkboard menus, changed daily, and an open kitchen — and the fact that it was crowded, alive with bodies and light and noise. But I hated the physical execution of that concept and the fact that Il Posto was so fucking crowded, a riot of bodies and handbags, neighbors, hatchet-faced women gone vicious from having to wait for their grana padano green salads, and drunken men, red-faced and laughing too loud, too long, at nothing at all funny, people walking around, trying to read the wall-mounted chalkboards in the fading light and guttering candles, adjusting glasses and gumming up the traffic between tables. From the kitchen, you could hear the shouting, the pans being slammed down onto burners with more than the necessary amount of force. The floor was in a panic, completely overwhelmed, and the service was furious, the line lost in the weeds. From the minute I'd walked in (fighting my way through the press, making for the bar), all I'd wanted to do was leave, but because I'd actually made it to the bar and put in an order, I was locked in to the dance, unable to extricate myself easily or quickly.
Wait. It was all the reminder I needed. I knew Il Posto was going to go one of two ways. Either the place would get its act together, survive the glut and mutiny on the floor and come out like steel tempered under flame, or it would shatter under the pressure, explode in exhausted bitterness and just close one day with no explanation for anyone other than "Christ, it'd been going so well...." In my head, I laid odds: five to one in favor of recovery and perseverance. Andrea Frizzi, chef and owner, was not exactly a rookie. He had better than two dozen restaurants behind him — arranged in a line that stretches from Denver (he did time at Via and Cucina Coloré before opening Il Posto late in 2006) back to consulting work in New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. (where he was executive chef at Bice Restaurant), and Milan, where he was born and raised and his folks owned a salumeria. He'd done four years of culinary school in Milan, graduating at the top of his class. Had it been anyone other than Frizzi (or maybe a handful of other serious local veterans) standing in that kitchen, I would've bet heavy on a loud and spectacular failure.
So I waited. And this summer, I finally returned for my Van CA, my pancho peroni oyster mush and Monkey.
The concept of Il Posto (Italian for "the place" — can't get more basic than that) has not changed. It's still a trattoria, still sports the chalkboard menus, the daily changes (often taking the form of ingredientiary tinkering instead of entire plate rotations — pistachio pesto with the gnocchi instead of arugula, radicchio risotto one night, apricots the next), still has a spare, almost austere dining room (which, in order to feel alive and vital, requires a certain density of customers that Il Posto never seems to have trouble attracting), still has that open kitchen, stylishly offset, staffed now by guys who wear the tight and expansive eyes of veterans, the line cook's thousand-mile stare. The floor staff has mellowed, too, the best servers having following the gravity of Frizzi's model down to an inevitable talkiness, going through the menu item by item, course by course, often digressing into conversations about the provenance of the beef, the origins of the cheese and pasta.
But there are also still problems here, not nearly as crippling or obvious, but insidious — little things that nag and irritate, flavoring an otherwise good experience, rather than huge things that completely overshadow the good. A shooter of lambrusco — red, sweet and fizzing with cheap Italian fruitiness — at the start of my meal was a nice touch, as was serving my Moscato out of the ice bucket, thick and sweet and smelling of Froot Loops and cold iron: perfect for a hot night in the city. But then I reached for the bread, which had been brought with a plate of high-quality olive oil speckled with cracked black pepper, and the first piece was stale, the second fresh but decorated with a tuft of fuzz from someone's shirt cuff, the third just fine. At a place like this, no one should have to go through three pieces of bread just to find a good one. It bothered me, but I could've let it go had it been the only little thing wrong.
I acceded to my waiter's exhaustive recitation of the menu (not as bad inside as it is on the patio, where the server carries around a large menu and props it on his knee while he talks) and found it interesting — digressions on robiola and the natures of the different pastas: tagliatelle ordered from Italy because the chef likes it better, the strozzapretti and maltagliati ("It means badly cut, irregular") made in-house that morning. He skipped the one plate on the board that interested me, a peach in salt.
"As an appetizer?" I asked.
"Yes. It's roasted in a salt crust, like an eggshell, that we crack."
I nodded, ordered it. It arrived as a whole peach, skin-on and untouched, surrounded by the shards of a cracked salt-paste shell mounded up like an icy snowfall. Cut from the pit, the flesh was juicy and sweet, the salt residue left behind on the slick of skin, making each bite slightly savory. Touched with a dab of chive crème fraîche, it was incredible. What's more, it was new — proof of Frizzi's comprehensive intelligence, knowledge of food lore and weird sense of humor, and also of his crew's ability to translate a difficult concept (four ingredients total, nowhere to hide) into something wonderful. I ate with my eyes closed, smile on my face, stripping the fruit to the stone while the radio played the Beatles' "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey."
Risotto next — an enormous plate, perfectly cooked, in the Milanese style, with Parmigiano Reggiano and lots of saffron, ruined (to my eye) by the addition of a twist of gold foil in the center. How pointlessly ostentatious is patissier's gold in any presentation? Annoying garnish aside, the risotto was delicious — a meal in itself, and showing an admirable command in the kitchen since each plate (as I'd been assured by my server) was made to order: no par cooking, no holding-for-fire. To do it right takes about eighteen minutes. Mine was timed beautifully, even when I fucked with the kitchen by ducking out for a smoke between courses.
Next course, burrata-stuffed chicken breast, served on a welled white plate — half a breast with one frenched wing bone, stuffed with handmade buratta and baby sage, lying in a tarn of pan jus and Peroni over a mound of oyster mushrooms and thick-cut cubes of pancetta. The chicken was one of the best I've ever tasted — absolutely gorgeous and incredibly flavorful, ideally roasted, rubbed with butter and flashed under the broiler to crisp the skin with its light touch of black pepper. The jus was rich, the pancetta crisp and salty. But the mushrooms were limp and slick. Oyster mushrooms take a skilled hand — a hot pan, a fast turn, a careful eye to pull them at the instant they've crisped slightly before burning. These were just awful, and their earthy, sour flavor leached out into the sauce the longer they sat lumped up in it, uneaten.
I ended the meal with a plate of addictive bombolini — Italian sugar doughnuts — in a puddle of vanilla crème anglaise that I would've gladly eaten until I exploded. They certainly left a better taste in my mouth than the mushrooms, but those mushrooms are what continue to flavor my memories of Il Posto, a restaurant that has the potential to be great but isn't quite there. It has all the big things right — the space, the concept, the crew — but it still needs to work on the little things. As any chef will tell you, those little things are what make the difference, what separate the truly exceptional restaurants from those still striving.
Il Posto is close, though, and I won't wait nearly as long before I return for another dinner, playing the odds that this next meal will be just about perfect.
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