Happiness is a plate of pesto pasta.
268 Sixth Ave., near Bleecker St., (212) 982-3300
Seven days a week, noon to midnight
VIBE Downtown sidewalk scene
OCCASION First date, group dinner
DON’T MISS DISH Pesto pasta, veal meatballs, eggplant parmigiana
AVERAGE PRICES Appetizers, $7; entrees, $13.50; dessert, $6.50
RESERVATIONS Accepted for parties of four or more
Wasn’t last week a miserable one in New York? The markets were down and so were some of the candidates.Some people lose their appetite when things seem gloomy. Not me. All I wanted was a bowl of pesto pasta. And nobody makes better pesto sauce than Bar Pitti. If you’ve ordered it, you know exactly I’m talking about. Every New Yorker should eat it at least once.
But it was late in September, so my chances were slim. High basil season was long over. Would they still be making the pasta? There are a thousand types of basil, but Giovanni Tognozzi’s very particular about picking the right one. It’s only available through August and sporadically through September.
Tognozzi is the owner of Bar Pitti and a powerful man when it comes to pesto. Somehow I got him talking about the recipe. He mixes the basil with olive oil, Parmesan, pignoli and garlic. More pignoli than garlic, he says. Then he stops himself as if he has said too much.
“They’re all my recipes,” he says. These days he’s no longer working the kitchen; he works the front of the house.
The pesto’s not on the menu. You have to ask for it. Beg, really. When I ordered the pesto, my server said they were out of it. She was teasing.
“I was going to surprise you, but you looked too miserable. We have it.” She
brought it to the table. Its perfume is hypnotic, its flavor intense, and
suddenly everyone in the restaurant was ordering the pesto pasta. It’s a
word-of-mouth kind of place. And that’s just one of the things that makes it a
New York kind of place.
Only tourists eat from the regular menu. All the best dishes are scribbled on
a blackboard in Italian – veal milanese, bruschetta, panzanella, polpettini and
osso bucco. Servers translate. They carry the blackboard around like one of
Moses’ tablets. They never write down your order, but they remember everything.
When the servers are too busy, diners pass the blackboard from table to table
It’s a small gesture, but it’s one of the things that make Bar Pitti really
feel like a community, a community that includes everybody. Locals, tourists,
celebrities – they all come to sit on green plastic chairs.
When basil season ends, it’s time for the polpettini, the little crusty balls
of braised veal and Parmesan cheese.
The recipe for these wonderful polpettini spawned a lawsuit, a feud between
Bar Pitti and Da Silvano, the
restaurant next door.
“It’s my mother’s recipe,” says Tognozzi. No one really knows who won.
I also love the eggplant parmigiana. I think it’s the way they cut the
eggplant, with long silky ribbons of it layered with ruby-red tomato sauce and
gooey gobs of mozzarella and Parmesan.
Sometimes there’s tagliolini tossed with sweet bits of fresh crab, parsley
and tomato, glossed in white wine and olive oil. Sometimes there’s perfectly
charred sepia or braised oxtail with polenta. This isn’t rocket science, but it
There’s a good reason some restaurants survive. It’s the same reason people
sit on the bench outside Bar Pitti waiting in the cold to be picked, waiting to
pay cash, waiting to eat the same wonderful food they’ve been eating here since