Last year I found an Italian restaurant whose food I enjoyed more than Babbo – I found it on accident when Anthos provided one of the worst starts to a meal ever leading me to walk out; That restaurant was Alto. On my followup trip to NYC this year it appears others also shared my love of Alto – and moreso of Chef White’s food as Alto received a second Michelin Star and White opened two more restaurants in Convivio and Marea – both receiving 3-stars from the Times and a star from Michelin.
Braving my way, on foot, through the freezing temperatures of New York from Macy’s to Tudor Place and arriving just moments before my noon reservation I was greeted promptly by a friendly host and hostess – I was the first patron to arrive and was seated immediately with the place slowly filling to capacity by the time my meal had finished.
For those who haven’t been, the layout of Convivio is interesting with a very small bar up front and a narrow walkway leading back to the two-tiered, white tablecloth restaurant. Tables are well spaced and light ignorable music is played over the speakers which makes conversation pleasant and prevents being a disturbance to other tables. With menu delivered and water poured I was quickly informed of the option of ordering a la carte versus a 4-course prix fixe (stated to be a better deal and a manner to experience more of chef White’s recipes.) Browsing the menu I was very impressed by most of the options but somewhat upset that the chicken livers and polenta was no longer offered since it was still on the website.
Opting for the four course with an additional pasta (instead of a secondo) as the main I was swiftly brought the day’s sampling of bread to go with the gloriously smooth yet mildly grassy olive oil present on each table. The first bread, a relatively standard sourdough with an thick yet chewy crust and supple interior was good – the olive wheat, however, was fantastic. Featuring whole Kalamata olives housed inside the fluffy interior and a perfect crumb for such a crispy crust I truly had to temper myself to avoid eating too much – after all, I had 20 courses of Per Se upcoming that evening and all four courses to go at Convivio.
My first course – replacing the Polenta/Liver – was Quaglia with grilled quail, pancetta, radicchio, figs, mushrooms...and after seeing the dish and taking my first bite I was almost glad the Polenta was no longer served. Admittedly a much larger portion than expected the dish featured more than 1/2 of a quail prepared medium rare and perched atop a large slice of radicchio that provided a slight bitter textural component to the sweet and supple protein. Alongside the main portion were a grilled and split mission fig, crispy yet moist grilled mushrooms, and small shavings of salty pancetta. An excellent dish with a lot of balance and not overly filling despite the size.
Shortly following the Quail was my appetizer sized portion of primi pasta – a portion that was larger than either of the main courses I had at Marea the following day. Entitled Garganelli, the dish consisted of hand-made pasta quills studded with seppia & shrimp sausage, zucchini, leeks, pecorino cheese. Flawlessly al dente noodles met the tooth with ample spring but gave way easily without chewiness while the spiced up tastes of calamari and shrimp sausage balanced nicely with the cooked but snappy zucchini, buttery smooth leeks, and creamy cheese. Buttery without being heavy, spring-like yet fresh despite the season – everything I’d expected from Chef White’s pasta.
After a short (but welcomed) delay as the restaurant began to fill up, my secondo pasta arrived – the pasta that had caught my eye from the moment I first looked at the online menu. Entitled Malloreddus the dish featured sardinian saffron gnocchette freckled with blue crab, diced sea urchin, tomatoes, and thinly sliced garlic topped with crispy toasted breadcrumbs and it wowed both the nostril, the eye, and the palate. Expecting more of a potato dumpling gnocchi I was first very impressed by the style of pasta – essentially a semolina and saffron pasta tightly wound to resemble a gnocchi but holding significantly more sauce within its coils – again the al dente preparation was spot on. After the surprise of the noodles the next surprise was the substantial amount of sweet crab meat in the dish – and the relative paucity of urchin in comparison. While excellent I do feel that a bit more urchin and perhaps slightly less crab would have helped to balance the tomato and garlic which mildly overpowered the seafood, albeit not in a bad way. A great dish for certain, but not on par with the version I experienced at Scarpetta (or the version I would experience at A Voce three days later.)
Savories finished I was offered cheeses, coffee, or dessert wine to accompany dolci and after considering the cheeses I instead opted for a very nice Italian Coffee whose name I forget to accompany my Budino - a warm dark chocolate “cake” accompanied by hazelnut gelato and candied hazelnuts. Having tasted varying forms of budino in the past I have to say this was a first – a dish residing somewhere between a crème brule, a pudding cake, and a soufflé in that it was served in a ramekin, crispy on the top, fluffy around the edges, and simply molten chocolate in the center. Paired with the creamy and mildly bitter gelato and crunchy but salty hazelnuts this dessert was a masterpiece and definitely equal to the Torrone (featured at Convivio, but also at Alto where I ate it last year) as one of the best Italian restaurant desserts I’ve tasted.
When it was all said and done Convivio was the best overall Italian meal of this trip to New York, all things (service, food, price, setting) considered and a definite must visit for anyone looking for a more rustic or Southern approach to Italian dining in New York. While not quite as excellent as Alto, Babbo, or Scarpetta the total bill before tax and tip was less than $50, an absolute steal for the experience.