Last year there were many restaurant closures in Manhattan. Across Gotham more than 500 establishments from ambitious upstarts to legends such as Tavern on the Green shut their doors due to the economic downturn.
Yet throughout New York, Italian restaurants (even the high end ones) are not just surviving but positively thriving. Taking over legendary locations, showing up in hip hotels and being launched by celeb-chefs, New York’s haute Italian invasion is a welcome and unexpected sign of the resilience of the city’s restaurant industry.
“New Yorkers have always had a soft spot for Italian cuisine, so it’s a known commodity,” says Ben Leventhal, the co-founder of food industry blog eater.com and editor of NBC’s Feast. “People know what to expect from Italian,” he adds, “so it’s less of a risk at a moment when diners have fewer dollars to spend.”
Risk, more than anything, is the key factor currently guiding New York’s restaurant scene, particularly for owners filling failed spaces in high-profile hotels. Indeed, a trio of hotel newcomers has prompted the upscale Italian trend. First, the Greenwich Hotel, part owned by Robert de Niro, debuted Locanda Verde last autumn. Then Manhattan foodie king Danny Meyer opened Maialino at Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel – rescuing the sorry space formerly inhabited by Alan Yau’s Hakkasan. Finally, last month Scott Conant (of Scarpetta fame) arrived at the East Village’s sleek Cooper Square Hotel with Faustina whose pan-Italian menu replaces the California fusion-confusion of its overly precious predecessor.
Meanwhile, the Marc Newson-designed restaurant at Gordon Bunshaft’s legendary Lever House is now Casa Lever with formal Italian fare by the team behind the West Village’s Sant Ambroeus café empire. Toque Gray Kunz’s eponymous Time Warner Center boîte has morphed into A Voce Columbus whose chef Missy Robbins comes from Chicago’s Spiaggia, a long-time favourite of the Obamas. The iconic San Domenico restaurant on Central Park South was replaced last summer with chef Michael White’s fancy Italian fish joint, Marea. And San Domenico has reinvented itself as SD26, with modern-design Italian down in the Flatiron District.
“These aren’t the heavy, greasy, cliched Italian-American restaurants of a generation ago,” says Gherardo Guarducci, co-owner of Casa Lever, which is adorned with $140m (€103m) worth of original Warhols. “These are true Italian restaurants, offering the type of authenticity and quality that this economy demands.”
Besides their culinary and cultural bona fides, most of the newcomers also share another common denominator: a sensitivity to pricing. “Our dishes at Faustina average just $13 (€9) each,” says Conant, who’s original restaurant, Scarpetta, remains priced for deeper-pocketed diners. White, too, has kept an eye on cost despite Marea’s multiple $40 (€30)-plus entrees and blue-chip location. “We have more than 70 items on the menu, so people can spend as much or as little as they want,” he says. “We’re not aiming to be a ‘special occasion’ destination,” he adds, “you can’t survive like that on Central Park.”
Whether or not Marea survives, it will soon be joined by more Italian upstarts. This spring, a branch of Miami’s Quattro opens in the new Trump SoHo hotel, while Balthazar’s Keith McNally is developing a casual Italian joint on the Bowery. Of course there’s no guarantee Italian restaurants will continue to thrive but while the rest of America sticks to cheap Korean cart cuisine or kitchy cupcakes, New York’s Italian outposts are leading the nation in a much-needed return to grown-up eating.