What is with the cacio e pepe at Otto?
We had a good -- in some ways great -- meal at Otto on Monday. But it wasn't perfect.
Otto is structured most like a pizzeria, not a formal restaurant -- there are no secondi, just starters, pizze, pasta, and pre-prepared sides. It's not like any Roman pizzeria in particular, and there are strong New York touches like a voluminous wine list, a giant bar, and a devotion to cured meats.
We had the following:
$25 carne plate including duck cotechino, testa, salami, culatello
The headcheese was full of tangerine (or maybe orange) peels, meltingly gelatinous, and spectacular. If you like fresh brawn, or even if you don't, this is sort of a preserved and fruity version.
The pepper salami was very salty. A good salami, with something that made the flavor very deep. My guess would be red wine before the fermentation, but it's just a guess.
The duck cotechino seemed salty and boring till my brother recommended holding a piece on my tongue -- like a milnt pastille, or a communion wafer, depending on your creed (I, for one, believe in Duck). Then all the flavor came out, with a little earthiness but mostly the sweetness that preserved meats sometimes have.
The culatello was a standout. I didn't understand the appeal of culatello till this meal -- it just seemed like a way of spending more money for soft but good prosciutto. But this stuff was unctuous: sweet, salty, fatty, and vaguely nutmeggy all at the same time. Once it's sliced thin, I don't know how to tell culatello visually from prosciutto, but maybe there is something in the pattern or the color. Good ham.
$4 salsify with blood orange
I'm going to the market to get some salsify and make this dish: just bite-sized chunks of salsify, cooked till they were no longer crunchy but not at all mushy, and mildly spiced with some squished up blood orange. Salsify, scorzonera, black salsify, gobo -- the whole group, with its funny and overlapping names -- deserves greater press, and this is a way to stick on on a plate and say, "I know you're tired of cooked carrots and buttered parsnips, so try this."
$4 cardoons with bagna cauda
I've had run ins with cardoons in the past -- they are a pain to prepare, since the outside is stringy and intensely sharp. Someone spent a lot of time peeling and scraping the cardoons, which were simply cooked and good in themselves. Many cardoon recipes have them cooked in milk, for reasons I don't really understand, although the artichoke flavor of course gives the milk a sweat aftertaste. The bagna cauda was not very cauda, but it had the right ingredients: garlic, anchovies, and olive oil. It's an anchovy version of the eggless aioli that you get along the Mediterranean, or maybe it's just a salad dressing. Good sauce that had no relation to the cardoons. I ate some sauce with bread and I enjoyed the cardoons separately, because they were better that way.
Both sides came at the beginning of the meal, and they were sitting ready, at room temperature, in their little crocks. This was a good plan: if you look through the contorni list on the Otto menu, a lot of the flavors will be more delicate than the pizza and pasta flavors.
There were distinctly un-Rpman but good, slightly sour bread and packaged grissini on the table. Helpful for mopping up bagna cauda and for making stick sculptures.
$13 pizza with guanciale, radicchio, pecorino and red sauce
This was the saltiest pizza I've ever had, but good The pizza is thoroughly Roman in style: thin as a saltine and without a raised edge. It wasn't blackened in many places, but thoroughly cooked, the red sauce was sweet and salty and intense with tomatoes but not much else. (This is my main complaint about red sauces in New York in general: it sometimes seems like Two Boots is the only popular place that has discovered that pizza sauce is better with a peperoncini bite.) There was quite a bit of sauce although maybe sparse by New York standards.
The radicchio and the guanciale were both cooked through and blackened at their peaks. Guanciale -- cured jowl -- is great but expensive meat to cook with, and anyone who likes bacon pizza would like this, too. With guanciale and a little pecorino, this pizza attacked my tongue like a salt lick.
$9 pizza with just mozzarella
This is off-menu, but obviously traditional. The lighter topping let the crust develop a little more crispiness than in the sauced pizza, and the mozzarella was just great: bright white, creamy, very gently elastic. My son, who (I promise) has eaten more pizze con solo mozzarella than you have, tried it "both ways": that his, he had it integrated and he also peeled off the toasted cheese so he could eat the parts separately. He gave it his highest rating.
$9 bavette cacio e pepe
My main disappointment was what's listed as bavette cacio e pepe on the menu. Bavette are the Genoese bulging linguine: distinctly flattened, but curved along the flat side. Imagine pasta with the cross section of a magnifying glass, and that's packaged bavette and identical to what we got. The pasta was cooked well, with lots of salt in the pasta (from salty cooking water) and not at all mushy.
Cacio e pepe is, I think, traditionally robust in flavor and austere in preparation: just pecorino cheese, some of the pasta cooking water to make the cheese into an adherent sauce, and then a lot of black pepper. Usually, you can count on the cooking water and the pecorino to provide the saltiness. In Otto's version, the pasta came slippery with oil, with a light pecorino dose and almost no pepper bite. There was none of the adherent creaminess that I expected. Not a bad dish, but a sort of gutless and greasy echo of the peppery Roman version. Cacio e pepe happens to be my favorite pasta preparation, and this wasn't my favorite.
$46 Aglianico "Irpinia" Mastrobernardino 2003 (Campania)
Peppery nose, no acidic harshness, very smooth alongside the food, and obviously ready to drink and finish now. I have a new aglianico to hunt down in the wine stores.
$7 vanilla, dark chocolate, milk chocolate chip,
The vanilla and the dark chocolate got higher marks at the table. The warm chocolate sauce also got gobbled down.
$7 ricotta di bufala, salty caramel, olive oil
The combination was a mistake, and it was our fault. Next time, I will have either all salty gelati or all non-salty. Fortunately, I tried a bite of the ricotta gelato first, so I got to taste it -- pretty much, just what you would imagine sweet frozen ricotta to taste like: delicate, creamy. But the other two ice creams were heavily salted, and after eating them, I couldn't eat the ricotta. Of the two salty ones, my brother liked the fruit (yes, olive oil is fruit) and I liked the sugar, but they are both wonderful flavors and the gelato was all
house nocino, house limoncello
Someday, I will understand the appeal of nocino, but not today.
The limoncello, in contrast, is wonderfully pulpy, not at all syrupoid, and like a fresh and dapper lemonade whose life has been extended by taking a glass of schnapps each day after its constitutional. My brother is more of a limoncello devotee than I, and he told stories about sipping an even better version recently during a gondola ride (in Central Park, of all places) for his birthday. Limoncello surely derives a lot of its quality from its surroundings.
Otto looks pretty, with Roman red the predominant theme and a huge number of empty wine bottles as completely effective sound reflectors.
We went early, but even between 7pm and about 9, the place was right loud, not just with diners, but also with contemporary pop on the tannoy. I often felt like we were using the Cone of Silence, and I had to shout to ask Don Adams and Edward Platt to repeat things.
Service was efficient, accurate, and timely. No one rushed us. Our water glasses stayed filled.
I drank lots and lots of water all evening and into the night. The use of salt seemed much more like a Roman restaurant than a New York one, but I also admit that we ordered a whole set of very salty things from the menu. Still, if you don't like salt you will have a hard time at Otto.
I will go back, try the fish, maybe have just contorni and antipasti, and try another traditional pizza, like Margherita. I think I'll see if I can go even earlier, though, or go alone so that it's not quite so noisy. Also, I'll drink tons of water beforehand.
Note: for somewhere so fashionable, Otto is not just affordable, it is cheap. You could have a full, good dinner for under $25 including wine. You could eat well for $15.
1 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10003