REVIEW

Barbetta

“Old world elegance” can be a promiscuously bestowed laurel, but there are few restaurants nowadays to which the label truly applies.  One thinks of La Tour d’Argent in Paris, Zalacain in Madrid and La Terrazza at the Hotel Splendido in Portofino.  In New York, we have the 21 Club, La Grenouille, The Leopard at des Artistes and Barbetta.

Barbetta is one of the most beautiful restaurants in the city.  Housed in 1874 and 1881 townhouses, its dramatic baroque interior is filled with 18th century Piemontese antiques, including a chandelier from a palazzo in Torino formerly belonging to the Savoys.  A harpsichord in the foyer is signed Francesco Fabbri 1631.  Outside, a lush verdant garden shielded from the hubbub of the city by the leaves of century-old trees has seating for 85 around a central fountain.  It is the city’s most pleasant al fresco dining; on a cool fall evening, there is nothing to compare to it.

Barbetta also claims an illustrious history: that it is the oldest Italian restaurant in New York, the oldest restaurant in the Theater District, the first to serve risotto (1906), polenta (1906), white truffles (1962), sun-dried tomatoes (1968), tiramisu (1982) and panna cotta (1984) and one of the first restaurants to import Italian wines like Barbaresco and Barolo.  It became especially well-known for those white truffles, hiring a truffle hound in 1962 and serving the white truffle dishes of Piemonte throughout the October to Christmas truffle season.  It is also still in the same family:  founded in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio, it is now owned by his daughter, Laura, who, among other things, is married to Dr. Günter Blobel, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Regrettably, there’s no avoiding the fact that the disparity between the quality of the cuisine and the grandeur of the surroundings and pedigree is now pronounced.  We have had too many dishes at Barbetta that were careless, mediocre or even bad.  These seemed to be more problems of execution than conception of the dishes, many of which have remained on the menu for decades, or even a century.  One hopes it can all be sorted out, but regardless the restaurant remains the city’s best pre-theater restaurant, with an unbeatable atmosphere, a patrician character and a secluded, jasmine and wisteria-perfumed patio so intoxicatingly romantic as to be likely to induce impromptu engagements.

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INFORMATION

Midtown West
321 W. 46th St.
New York (nr. Eighth Ave.)
212-246-9171
Tue-Sat, noon-2pm and 5pm-midnight; Sun-Mon, closed

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