You have to be doing something right when you set up shop in 1987, in what was then an unfashionable part of town, and keep people packing your restaurant for the next 22 years. But it’s a love it or hate it kind of place as I discovered this week.
A group of close colleagues got together for a holiday meal. We chose da Umberto at 107 W.17th Street (212-989-0303) because each of us had great memories of dinners and lunches there. When Umberto Assante opened his restaurant, he was in the first wave of the Northern Italian food invasion. His Tuscan kitchen was then a novelty. He must have had a crystal ball in his choice of location. At the time, Chelsea was not a dining destination. But his place, on a then undistinguished block, became one.
At the time, most Ad Agencies were uptown. Most TV Production companies, for reasons of rent, if not hipness, were downtown. da Umberto’s was a convenient place to meet in the middle, which I remember doing numerous times for lunch.
The atmosphere at da Umberto is one of truly traditional Italian hospitality. The room is softly lit; the décor is warm and welcoming.
The clientele is subdued and hardly the see-and-be seen crowd at (dreadful) da Silvano in the Village or Barolo in Soho. I talked to one patron at the bar who has been eating here since it opened. He loves the place, the food, the solidly Italian wait staff, and the ambience. He is certainly not alone.
However, there are da Umberto detractors lingering on every restaurant reviewing website. The difference between those who love the place and those who don’t is profound. It’s almost amazing how vitriolic some reviews are. But there are equal numbers of people for whom da Umberto represents the comforting assurance of being in a welcoming place where, if they don’t know your name, they seem to want to.
Walk through the non-descript door and you find yourself in front of a gleaming marble bar. Gorgeous green olives, in generous bowls, are the first treat you encounter. And the bartender makes a mean martini. Passing through the main dining room, you are awestruck by a buffet of antipasti so beautiful they almost don’t look real.
The joy of ordering here is the spectacular number of specials in all courses. The choices of pasta alone are hard to make. We didn’t. We each had a sampler of three: a superb risotto, wonderful spaghetti with peas, prosciutto and a cream sauce and lastly and least, a pasta heavy seafood ravioli sitting in a sauce that tasted for all the world like Campbell’s tomato soup. From the last item, you begin to understand the source of some of those negatives you read about. If it was the pasta course you chose, you’d have every right to be terribly disappointed.
On to the main course. The Vitello Scallopine, the deliciously sauced Raviolacci with its truffled mushroom filling, the Chicken with sausage, and finally, my Porchetta with its abundance of crackling, were all hits with our crowd.
The wine list is a challenge to any budget. It is top heavy with very expensive Italian wines. In fact, the least expensive bottle of Chianti comes in at $60.00 and there’s a half bottle at $45.00. With very decent Montepulciano running around $14.00 retail, it’s hard to justify the $75.00 price tag on da Umberto’s offering. When it comes to Brunello, you can just forget about it unless you are purposely trying to infuriate whoever signs your expense reports.
Even though we stuck to a single bottle of wine and skipped dessert altogether, the tab was a stiff $125.00 a person.
I do love it there. I love speaking Italian to the waiters even though I’m afraid my use of Italian put off one of my dinner partners: She is wildly allergic to shellfish and the awful ravioli was full of them, something she didn’t have a clue about because you-know-who was babbling on. But $125.00 is an awful lot for the privilege of speaking Italian. I probably should have just opted for a Rosetta Stone instead. But it never would have tasted as good.