I consider Gemma a potential new “neighborhood joint,” even though it’s on The Bowery and I live in the West Village. Basically anything new and purportedly special that opens up south of 14th Street is a place I will claim as my own, if it lives up to its hype. My experience tonight at Gemma was less about living up to hype; it was instead about breaking apart some preconceived ideas I’d formed, reading a lot of commentary on the restaurant. What Frank Bruni wrote in The Times about Gemma suggests it is one of downtown’s newest scene-and-be-seen-scenes in a long line of over-hyped, over-designed, under-whelming, palate-stumping, cash-guzzling newbies on the block. Love him or hate him, the critic can write, and what he published admittedly has more bite and greater depth than Gemma’s dessert calzone filled with ricotta and Nutella. However, my own take on the restaurant is that it strikes me as the best of what has come to be known as “the banal bistro,” those serving up candlelight and pasta to diners who don’t know from burrata, but know it’s all a buzz. Indeed, from some of the snarky posts I’ve read about the restaurant so far, I was expecting far more of a “scene” of over-dressed, under-fed socialite types shoving each other out of the way to gain the proper spot from which to be viewed by those walking past the street corner onto which the restaurant’s industrial glass and metal sides open. In fact, what I experienced inside the restaurant (admittedly only after passing the girl in the ugly trapeze dress with the oversized Fendi bag on her cell phone outside) was a beautiful dining room with a semi-open kitchen (a favorite!), dripping candelabras, and enough rustic wood to make even my Tuscany-nostalgic heart skip a beat! The restaurant is beautiful. Absolutely my favorite aesthetic, wonderfully executed to be both cozy and glamorous, and it’s a great late summer setting since it opens to the street (ala Barbuto), but it also promises to be a destination of refuge from the cold nights of winter that make me crave warm light and dark wood and steaming dishes of pasta with a spicy glass of red.
The first great surprise was a friendly maître’d who actually allowed us to sit (it was 7pm) before our entire party had arrived. Sara was running late from her comedy-writing class, so we were only three when he showed us to our table with a smile. Next delight was the friendly and helpful black, woman, sommelier (and you know I’ve had a few less-than-inspiring interactions with these wine folks lately). I’ll take a little political progressiveness with my arrabiata anytime, especially on the Bowery! We actually started with cocktails–which were good, though there are few house specialties from which to choose–and my $15 Hendricks gimlet was the only thing we ordered that I felt was egregiously over-priced.
But after that round, we slipped into a $38 bottle of Cannanou from Sardegna that was that was lovely and complex, light enough to be appropriate with the late summer breeze coming through the open sides of the restaurant, but sufficiently structured to drink well with the numerous dishes we selected from the single page, newspaper-layout menu (think: The E.U.). Some highlights were the Fiori di Zucca (lightly fried and not overly stuffed with ricotta filling, so that the fresh floral taste of the bud was a feature and not an after-thought), Carciofi Crudi salad (a mixture of thinly sliced, crunchy raw artichoke and comfortingly chewy, shaved parmiggiano, all redolent of white truffle oil, to which I remain devoted despite its recent bad reputation), orechiette with broccoli rabe (al dente pasta and flavorful, garlicky greens), Linguine Nero with baby octopus (my favorite dish overall–it was spicy and robust, and the octopus were ideally firm without being chewy), and Pizza Saracena with burrata and black olives, (the thinnest cracker of a crust, well balanced with sour, creamy cheese, salty black olives and bright, vinegary tomatoes). In fact, that pizza was the second dish of the night to feature the increasingly popular burrata cheese, and while it wasn’t my favorite experience with the ingredient, (try the imported delight at Lil’ Frankie’s on 1st Ave., or the sometimes evening-special at Blue Ribbon Bar, instead) it proved an innovative way to re-present classics such as Insalata Caprese, and Pizza Margherita. The crostini we tried were tasty enough but boring, with black olive tapenade and goat cheese, and I felt the same way about the Gnocchi Bolognese. For dessert, all the girls decided they wanted gelati and sorbetti, and since it’s still as hot as July outside, I had no real difficulty complying with the decision, plus I was curious to try the olio di olivo flavor, to compare with Mario’s version at Otto. In the end, the gelato couldn’t compete with that of The Red Beard, though I remain confounded about why more places don’t understand the genius of his use of salt in the dolci! It’s an established trend these days, and one of which I, as you may know, am a big fan.
What most impressed me about the restaurant was the surprising lack of pretension, and the genuine allowance to let us set a leisurely pace for dining. We had the table for the night, never felt hurried or disdained for our $38 bottle of wine. The prices were surprisingly reasonable all around (except for my cocktail) and the portions were appropriately sized for the richness of flavors presented. I have to say, Gemma is welcome to my neighborhood.
Gemma ($$$$) Bowery Hotel
335 Bowery @ 3rd St