[I interrupt this Parisian patisserie love-fest for a semi-brief New York fooding update.]
I've been to Otto, the popular reasonably priced member of Mario Batali's restaurant empire, a handful of times in the past few years for its super thin-crust pizza. Do they make my favorite pizza in the city? Not necessarily, but it's good enough that I keep going back, although not mindblowingly so. The gelato, possibly the best in the city, is the main draw for me.
But man, I've been doing it wrong all these years. Totally wrong. SO WRONG, I HAVE DONE. Kathy already discovered the trick to doing Otto right, that is, by skipping the pizza and going for the vegetable-based side dishes and generous pasta dishes. For some reason my brain barely registered that that half of the menu existed and I always overlooked it.
I went to Otto last Thursday with two Kathy-approved dishes in mind: English peas & prosciutto, and pasta alla norma. But first, the wait.
If you want to experience the frustration of waiting at an Italian train station for a train that seems to have fallen off its track and exploded, just go to Otto after 8 p.m; it's almost as painful. Okay, it's a small fraction of the pain, but seeing the Italian city names (which correspond to each party's ticket) flicker on the Italian train station schedule-esque reservation board next to the hostess's table reminded me of waiting in Venice for "the train to Bologna that did not exist." We waited at a table in the bar area, turning our heads at every flick flick flick indicating a possible relocation into the dining room, and groaning many times over the hour it took for a table to free up for our party of five (Lee Anne, Kimberly, Poonam, Danial, and me). On the bright side, our stomachs were frothing with anticipation and hungorz when we were finally seated.
After devouring the complimentary bread and breadsticks, I dug into the English peas & prosciutto with a hint of mint. Oh, those peas. Glorious peeeaaas. Why do those mildly sweet, fat green chlorophyll-enhanced globules make me so happy? You know how people like popping bubble wrap? It's kind of like that, but you pop it with your teeth, and instead of being rewarded with a delightful pip/pop sound, a burst of freshness fills your mouth. It's the taste of sunshine. But the good, non-burning taste, as a real taste of sunshine would scorch you and probably kill you, or at least give you skin cancer.
I liked the figs agrodolce, fresh figs soaked in a sweet and sour sauce, despite the alcohol content. What else was in there besides alcohol? ...I don't remember. I was mostly relieved that the bitterness from the alcohol didn't totally ruin the figs for me.
The cauliflower "alla Siciliana" was seasoned with olives, capers, and lemon juice. ...And other things I can't recall. There's a recipe near the bottom of this BBC page if that helps at all. Because I'm useless.
While I definitely like pasta, I could never say that I love it until eating the pasta alla norma, penne pasta topped with a light tomato sauce, small chunks of pudding-esquely tender roasted eggplant, a few basil leaves, and three plops of creamy bufala ricotta. Of course, this is based on my personal preference—I just happen to think that the combination of all these ingredients results in one of the best things ever, like chocolate chips and cookie dough, or pork and salt, or my head and a big, fluffy pillow. But it's not just the toppings that make life worth living—the pasta is a smidge on the undercooked side, giving it that slight chewiness that I find missing from 99% of the pasta dishes I've eaten in my life. The pasta plus the creamy sauce (creamy once you mix it all together), and the eggplant and basil in every other bite made for what is now my favorite pasta dish, something I think about whenever I'm eating something of lesser deliciousness, which is most of the time.
Lee Anne and Kimberly shared the penne con sausage and swiss chard. No creaminess factor here, but it was also very good. Same al dente pasta, just this time with garlic, sweet sausage bits, and swiss chard.
Poonam went with the vongole pizza, pizza topped with whole clams, garlic, and mozzarella (no sauce). I suppose the idea is that you pick out the clam meats and put them on the pizza yourself. I tried a bit without the clam, but it still had that briny clam flavor from the clam juices that had soaked into the cheese. It ain't a clam pie from Pepe's, but it's still tasty.
And then came the best substance to plop atop a belly of semi-digested pasta and pizza matter: gelato. The olive oil gelato alone makes it the best in New York City; I have yet to come across a more delicious gelato. Aside from the olive oil, salted caramel is my other favorite flavor. I could've stopped there, but one cup allowed for a maximum of three flavors and when given the opportunity to eat a wider variety of things at no extra cost, you take it. (For the disciplined eater, one cup is large enough to split between two people without making either feel like beached whale, but I could never fathom the idea of decreasing my gelato intake. Any gelato lover could totally eat a whole cup without a problem.) I decided the white nectarine sorbetto would be a good way to balance out the rich gelato.
The olive oil was as good as it's always been: oil-enhanced richness with a hint of salt to enhance the olive oil flavor. Salted caramel was almost equally satisfying: not as rich, but just as smooth and with a unique salty and smoky flavor, aside from the caramel. At least, that's what I tasted; Lee Anne said it was quite bitter, but my taste buds mostly registered the salt (it's weird because I know it's bitter, yet for some reason I gloss over that flavor and skip to what I consider to be "the good stuff"). Each bite of the white nectarine sorbet was like eating a finely puréed ripe white nectarine, yet much more exciting in frozen treat form than if it were just a white nectarine someone shoved in a blender.
That's what I love about good gelato/sorbetto: when it takes a flavor you love in its natural state and makes it ten times more addictive. But not ten times more intense—it's like the flavor is distilled to a pure state and then buffered with milk and sugar and things, but not masked, just reformed into a new substance designed to be eaten in large quantities. SWEET JESUS, DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT?
Man, I love gelato. And Otto.