It ain’t easy to open a restaurant in this city, nevermind a successful one. First, there’s the task of finding a space with reasonable rent, then liquor licenses to wrangle, and building out the space. Not to mention coming up with an original concept and menu, which ain’t easy either. Yet, Joe Campanale and his partners, August Cardona, Gabe and Katherine Thompson, continue to open successes, which manage packed dining rooms and full reservation books around the clock. What started with a West Village trattoria named dell’anima has expanded into a growing empire of hip Italian-bent eateries that includes L’Artusi and Anfora.
L’Apicio is their fourth venture and their first East Village eatery, located on the Bowery (just around the corner from DBGB) in a spacious locale that used to house Bowery Wine Co. The interior is a cool combination of industrial chic and cozy, with sky high ceilings, and a mix of metal, wood and brick trimmings.
There’s a generous wood bar upfront with nearby couches for lounging leisurely over a cocktail and a plate or two, and an outdoor area with plenty of seating come springtime. All of their restaurants seem to attract a lively crowd that tends to linger late into the night, but this spot affords more space to do so comfortably. Campanale’s a whiz with wines and he’s put together an exciting list of mostly Italian wines, including two orange wines worth trying, too. There’s a lengthy list of aperitifs and refreshingly unique cocktails, like a Dirty Spicy Martini with gin, vermouth, and B & G peppers and juice. I started with a great riff called “Manhattan in the Fall,” an intense blend of cinnamon-infused rye, bitters and Mole.
You can order the entire menu in the bar or at one of 120 seats in the main dining room. The menu features whimsical Italian with some not so Italian dishes, like Watercress with Roasted Carrots, Cumin, Yogurt and Pistachios, or Quail a la plancha with Butternut Squash and Pumpkin Seeds. And, of course, there’s a proper pasta section with classics, like Linguine with Clams, and more unusual options, like Tagliatelle with Salumi Ragu. One of my favorite sections of the menu is the Family-Style Polenta offerings, topped with everything from Braised Oxtail and shallots to Pork Meatballs with Tomato and Bacon.
We started with the Polenta paved with Shrimp, Tomato and Breadcrumbs, which sounds simple, but tasted divine — the ultimate comfort food for 2013. We also sampled the sliced Hamachi, served sashimi-style, capped with Apple, Jalapeno and Chives — a perfect combination of flavors and textures. Ooh, and there was finely Charred Octopus over Fregola, Pepperoni and Lemon, and just-made Pappardelle basking in a rich, Short Rib Ragu. The menu is generously sized with five fish dishes (Blackened Tuna, Red Snapper), four meat options (Roast Chicken and Pork Chops) and lots of sides.
As for desserts, they’re just as good as the savory side of the menu, so save room. There’s a mean Warm Chocolate Crostata with Amarena Cherries and a side of Stracciatella Gelato and a Banana-Chocolate Torta, topped with caramelized bananas and served with a creamy banana sorbet that they should sell by the pint. But my favorite was the Vanilla Semifreddo with a Warm Apple Compote, moist Spice Cake and Apple Cider Sorbet. The only real drawback with a menu this big and appealing is you can’t really make a dent in it on one visit, which means I’ll be back soon for more polenta.