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Jul 17, 2014 07:47 AM

Da Marcella

I hit Da Marcella (downtown branch on Houston St) with a couple friends after having read this very persuasive article about the owner and his sad story and his lifelong quest to serve, like, the PERFECT PASTA:

We arrived eight minutes late, and they hadn't held our reservation (six or seven tables were newly-seated). Nor did they seem sorry about it.

Some random dude was hanging around, waiting for his wife. They sat him at our table to wait before seating us. He plonked down, and wouldn't get up to let us take our seats. We had to press into him to sit down. And as we talked amongst ourselves, he treated our conversation like sports on TV, swiveling his head to listen to each speaker. The restaurant did nothing. There's a very strong not-giving-a-crap sentiment.

Wine was served at about 85 degrees. I seriously thought my esophagus was burning. We poured in ice and made slurpees.

Let me get to the gist. The reason these guys can afford to serve pasta for $10-15 on Manhattan real estate is that they're freezing all the sauces ahead. Way ahead. Nothing (we had two different pastas plus osso bucco plus meatball appetizer) had the slightest bit of flavor, and I say that literally. It was remarkable; I've never before encountered such flavorless food. All you can taste is salt and black pepper.

The cheese which had been grated over my pasta had melted into the general uber-blandness and was lost. But at one point, I struck upon an errant unmelted parmesan shard, and it was like angels singing. FLAVOR! I almost swooned. I'm not sure I've ever appreciated parmesan as fully as when it appeared through clouds of salt and black pepper at Da Marcella.

This sounds like the world's worst pan, but it's actually not. Aside from the crunchy rice beneath the osso bucco, the insanely stale and cheap bread, and Hell's own wine cellar, very little was actively bad. Just an utter failure to be good in any way. Even the dipping olive oil was admirably non-rancid - though disappointingly mediocre and poorly-chosen.

We were grievously disappointed, but a friend remarked that, given the generally low standards and not-giving-a-crap undercurrent, a slew of things had NOT gone wrong, and that was a miracle; presumably that's where the owner's strivings come into the equation. Nothing (aside from the afore-mentioned grievances) had actively rubbed us the wrong way - there were no off-flavors - so we found ourselves (reluctantly) eating more of the food than we really wanted to. It seemed almost fiendishly designed to never quite totally piss you off, so one could eat an entire plate with only a distant feeling of something being "off". If I'd stood up and hollered "People! Taste your food! It ought to have flavor beyond salt and pepper!", they'd have all experienced a sudden epiphany....but then kept on reluctantly eating, just as we had, only with the spell broken and a determination to never return.

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  1. Sorry you had such bad experience but it was such a 180 from my visits (at least a dozen) to Da Marcella that I actually re-checked your title to make sure it was the same place. On every occasion I've been there, service has been exceptionally warm and helpful and the food outstanding -- especially given the price-point. I am a huge fan of their octopus salad with sundried tomatoes and caper berries as well as the tagliatelle with wild boar, among others.

    1. We've been there on a couple of dinner occasions and were never disapppointed. 85 degreee wine sure sucks, but we ordered beers, a bottle of white to start with and a red (I'm sorry I can't recall the producers or vintages). They were all served in appropriate temps. Also enjoyed all our pasta dishes.

      1. I get what you say about the frozen pasta sauces. We had a neighborhood italian place I was hopeful for (found out after we were seated that it had changed ownership) Their menu offered way too many pasta saucing variations for a restaurant of this size for the sauces to have been fresh prepared. Well,the ragus a couple of us had were flavorless, among other flaws in this meal.. Its a rare occasion when we dont soak up up every bit of sauce on our plates but this was one of those occasions..
        I think such places must freeze the sauces in individual portions to facilitate their big menu. I cook various ragus in bulk and freeze - and there does tend to be a noticeable loss in flavor after a few weeks or months - I imagine that even with modern sealing technology, the smaller the portion the faster the taste dropoff. And microwaving as a heating method?? no time for re-seasoning, additional browning.

        .In any event the vision of going to a restaurant and having a packet of microwaved sauce dumped on my pasta does not appeal. It sounds too much like fast food.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jen kalb

          I haven't seen any evidence to support the OP's assertion that Da Marcella serves reheated frozen pasta sauce. On any given night they only have a few pastas and the sauces have always tasted very flavorful and fresh to me.

        2. Wow, I sure know where NOT to go next in Manhattan!

          1. That actually is a very damning pan.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Pan

              Nope. There are places which serve actively bad food. Many of them, in fact. I've been in places where I took one single bite of every dish, paid the bill, and left the restaurant. I've had rotten food, awful food, food that made me angry or even sick. Most food, in fact, is hardly worth consideration. Go eat randomly, and you'll find all manner of near (or full) inedibility.

              This was vaguely comforting and decently executed pastas with murky, bland, reheated-from-frozen sauces. A couple notches better than Olive Garden, to name one. That stuff is actively bad.

              I'm into deliciousness, though. And this sure ain't that.

              1. re: Jim Leff

                I don't think that a place has to be condemned as inedible or dangerous to human health for a post to be a damning pan.

                1. re: Pan

                  "inedible or dangerous to human health"

                  You're singling out two examples I gave of profoundly worse sorts of experiences, and ignoring my less extreme examples. Olive Garden, once again, isn't dangerous to human health, nor would many people find the food completely inedible. I would, however, damningly pan it.

                  Food with bad flavors deserves damning pan. As I stated quite clearly and repeatedly, there wasn't much bad here (a few specific gaffes aside). Just an utter absence of goodness. Such an experience doesn't deserve damning pan, and I didn't give it one.

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    As you wish. I understand everything you're saying, but it still sounds pretty bad to me.