Friday, October 17, 2008


The restaurant Bacaro is about 4 blocks from my apartment way downtown on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It's a very diverse neighborhood where trendy hipster meets Chinese fish monger.

What makes it such a great place to live is the fact that we haven't become totally gentrified yet, there's still a lot of diversity, you have industrial sign making shops next to emerging small art galleries on Essex street, old rent controlled tenements and super deluxe condos all vying for space in this ramshackle part of town that until 5 years ago wasn't even on most people's radar.

With all the attention the media is giving the neighborhood it's not surprising that so many new restaurants have opened up in very unusual, or at least hitherto unthinkable, locations. Bacaro is on Division street near Allen? Get out your maps! As hard as it may be to find you will be very glad once you have. Bacaro is a celebration of Venice. The look, the food, the wine and the old building all conspire to transport you to a back alley somewhere off San Marco Square.

Upstairs, where you enter, is a small room with a few small tables, one bigger communal table by the window, and a splendid bar. The ceiling is all dark beamed wood and in the center of it all is an elaborate simple white Venetian glass chandelier.

But the restaurant mostly occupies the excavated dark basement revealing old brick, stone, archways and a labyrinth of rooms, some with large tables ideal for entertaining a group of friends in semi-privacy (they charge $50 per person for food for parties of 6 or more who want one of the rooms; this does not include wine or tip). In addition there is a small downstairs bar.

It's the little things you notice here. Like the stemware, also from Venice and quite fancy, given that the place is more or less middle of the road when it comes to cost. You can find a splendid Venetian wine, Calao Ca'Orologio 2004 for $48 on the all Italian, modest sized wine list. A rare and special treat that I've been unable to locate anywhere (I inquired at the Italian Wine Merchant about ordering a case, they said they would look into it and get back to me - that was two months ago.) Not to be discouraged, my friend Jane and I did discover a great little wine shop on Avenue C called Alphabet City Wines, run by a very amiable, informed and chatty guy named Keith (100 Avenue C near 7th street 212-505-WINE ) who researched it while we waited and was able to order two cases for us. It's going to take two months to arrive, but is well worth the wait.

Back to Bacaro.

Sadly, for all the external feelings of obscurity and discovery the masses did indeed receive the press release and the place is a zoo and, much to my chagrin, they don't take reservations (unless you're booking a party). Best time to go is Sunday evening, it's the only night when it's slow enough that if you show up at 7 you can easily (still) get a seat. The bar is great to sit at and the bartenders are very astute, friendly and have great memories. My only criticism is that the bar stools are wicked uncomfortable (but look great!).

Food: Italian with an emphasis on all things Venetian. My first dish was a green bean and anchovy salad (insalata aciuga $9) a wonderful combo of salty/fishy and fresh/crunchy.

Insalata Pulpi (also $9) is a great starter, starchy potatoes meet tender, slightly oily, fishy Octopus with a little citrus dressing , wonderful.

What impresses me most about the food is that I've had both these starters on several occasion and the kitchen is very consistent. I hate it when I go to a place and the same dish can be presented 4 different ways depending on who is in the back cooking. Consistency always win the day for me.

Lasagna Treviso ($15) is out of this world with layers of freshly made pasta and a single layer of radicchio (I'm not sure, but I think it might be wilted before they add it to the lasagna). Then the entire thing is covered in a blanket of creamy rich smoked mozzarella - when I first read the description I crinkled up my nose - something about smoked mozzarella sounded so un-Italian, more Kraft singles to my mind. I was totally wrong, this is one of the best pasta dishes I've eaten in recent years and every time I go back I have to restrain myself from ordering it again. The whole wheat duck pasta is also a winner although I wouldn't mind if the sauce was a little more hearty and rustic with bigger pieces of duck, but for $16 it hits the spot.

Other highlights were a soupy, rich, white Asparagus risotto ($16) delicious any time of the year although I think it might be a good idea to try and only serve asparagus when it is in season here. It would make it more special and also help to diversify the menu by including seasonal local vegetables. For example, Blue Hubbard Squash risotto would do well served in a similar style.
Asparagus is on the menu in October - twice, and let's face it California asparagus shipped to the east coast isn't much more then green cardboard. The Slow Food movement started in Italy and encourages all of us to be more sensitive to the seasons. I think good restaurants like Bacaro who have a lively dedicated clientele could afford to be a little more aware of what they are serving from an environmental point of view.

Cod is an endangered species, do we really need to be eating it? Given the obvious cleverness of the chef you'd think he/she (it doesn't say on their site) could come up with an alternative to this traditional seafood (and don't get me wrong I love it, but...). Also if you look closely at "salted cod" when you buy it in a grocery store it often isn't even Cod, it's Pollack or some other, similar fish.

Along these same line there is nothing on the menu that states any of the meat is locally raised, so while I appreciate the price point I think it is necessary these days that everybody ask their server where the meat comes from and if they don't know or if it is just more industrially tortured CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations ) meat then I say no to it.

Write letters to your favorites chefs, restaurants and tell them you are willing to pay a few dollars more for an organic chicken or some grass fed beef (or maybe some local Bison - I know a place at the Union Square market that would be happy to sell it to you wholesale). I know this is a constant complaint of mine, so I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record, but if the people who own Diner, Marlowe and Bonita can do it (and are even opening up their own butcher shop) and still offer affordable meals in their restaurants then everybody can - you just need to want to.

Regardless of my cry for a more aware, sustainable, restaurant culture, Bacaro is definitely worth a trip downtown. Consistently high quality food, excellent service in a unique and cosy environment - it's one of my new favorites. Let me know what you think. Bon appetite!

136 Division Street 212-941-5060

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