RENOWN in the restaurant world can dawn so suddenly and grow so quickly that many chefs get ahead of themselves, winding up a half-dozen paces beyond where they rightfully belong.
For Andrew Carmellini, the opposite has been true. Now 38, he has lagged behind, without billing as prominent or a showcase quite as flattering as he deserves.
Although insiders knew that he, as much as Daniel Boulud, deserved credit for the outstanding French fare at Café Boulud during his years there, the restaurant’s name told the world something different. And each superb dish he turned out burnished another man’s crown.
When he left in 2005 to open A Voce, he got his own kitchen, where he did some of the city’s best Italian cooking. But A Voce’s coolly modern, oddly soulless cosmetics were more of a drag on his efforts than a complement to them.
And the atmosphere was tense — between him and his partners, that is. After just two and a half years they broke up, and he went from having a restaurant that didn’t do him full justice to having no restaurant at all. So he began to make plans for a little East Village pasta joint. I’m sure it would have been terrific. It also would have been a crime.
Mr. Carmellini’s talent demands a bigger stage, and luckily for both him and us, Locanda Verde came along in the nick of time to give him that.
It opened two months ago in the TriBeCa space inhabited briefly — and disastrously — by Ago, may it rest in peace. It has more than 100 seats and a crack team of partners including Ken Friedman, of the Spotted Pig, and Josh Pickard, of Lever House. And it has a kitchen and a staff large enough to execute a menu with about 35 dishes, not counting desserts, on a given night.
But in keeping with the Carmellini story, Locanda Verde doesn’t amount to the exactly right situation or perfect fit for him. It’s not the Carmellini restaurant that many of us have been waiting and hoping for, though it has plenty to recommend it. Hit the menu’s strong spots and you’ll have a terrific meal at a reasonable price.
Like the menu at A Voce, the one here is emphatically market-driven, as the restaurant’s name (which means “green inn”) telegraphs. But the dishes in aggregate tend to be more rustic and less elegant, perhaps a reflection of Mr. Carmellini’s mood, certainly a reflection of the moment.
By portioning and tagging roughly half of them as “cicchetti” (snacks) or antipasti, Locanda Verde sidesteps sticker shock; even the entrees tread cautiously, most $25 or less. And to go with the restrained prices there’s a casual mood — too casual at times.
No matter how obviously I fumbled with a shoulder bag or clumsily shoved it under a chair, no one offered to check it. Has the restaurant taken a pass on that service? The prices aren’t that gentle — and, for some diners, they won’t make up for the frenzy and noise on a crowded night.
This is nonetheless a serious restaurant, so vastly superior to Ago that it’s sacrilegious even to mention the two in the same sentence. Here’s my groveling penance, a bent-knee litany of all that’s improved:
The wine list. Assembled by Josh Nadel, it engineers a wide-ranging, cost-conscious tour of Italy. The Barolo scrooges out there will wish for more big reds and a little more age, but focus instead on how many northern Italian wines are under $60 a bottle and on what a fine selection of whites — sylvaner, Soave, ribolla gialla, arneis — there is.
The décor. Mr. Friedman toned down the farmhouse and generic-trattoria elements and made everything look glossier and a bit more industrial. That suits and reflects the neighborhood, into which the restaurant merrily spills, thanks to the elimination of exterior walls in good weather.
The desserts. The Locanda team had the fantastically good sense to recruit Karen DeMasco, whose work at Craft established her as one of the city’s leading pastry chefs. The many standout sweets here include a toasted almond semifreddo and a rice custard gelato, which tastes like rice pudding in a smoother, colder, more comely guise.
The rest of the food. There’s hardly a false step among the cicchetti and antipasti, some not that ambitious but most immensely appealing. The sheep’s milk ricotta that the restaurant imports from Sardinia is sublime, and so was the summer corn that joined mushrooms on top of crunchy bread.
ything involving crunchy bread is worth ordering, including a crostino of blue crab and jalapeño that underscored Mr. Carmellini’s willingness to stray beyond established Italian traditions. But don’t load up on crostini at the expense of an appetizer of meaty, tender grilled octopus, served with an almond romesco, or of the juicy lamb meatball sliders, this restaurant’s answer to A Voce’s duck meatballs.
The pasta dishes and entrees weren’t as uniformly successful. While the “Sunday night ragù” on top of big, floppy gigantoni was a porky dream and while a dish called “my grandmother’s ravioli”— filled with short rib and pork and sauced with San Marzano tomatoes — made me want to swap ancestors with Mr. Carmellini, the crumbled mix of meats in a white Bolognese was a total washout, and the noodles in several dishes were slightly overcooked. Neither his grandmother nor mine would approve.
I found myself wishing for the opulence of some of his A Voce dishes, and got a hint of it in the charcoal-grilled squab, lavishly attired in pancetta, Swiss chard, fennel and black mission figs. In a humbler but equally impressive vein, he does a sectioned chicken for two, prepared in the wood-burning brick oven, that was spectacularly moist on visit after visit, though the rosemary and garlic sometimes got out of hand.
Maybe because the scene is more raucous, the ambience more casual and the emphasis on affordability more pronounced, Mr. Carmellini isn’t bringing the same precision to dishes here that he did at A Voce. He isn’t yet hitting his stride.
So be it. His amble beats the impatient sprints of some of the upstarts around town.
In the Greenwich Hotel, 377 Greenwich Street (North Moore Street), TriBeCa; (212) 925-3797, locandaverdenyc.com
ATMOSPHERE Glossy, industrial, yet cozy and open.
SOUND LEVEL Unkind to whisperers.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Sheep’s milk ricotta; crostini, especially blue crab; octopus; lamb sliders; crispy artichoke; grandmother’s ravioli; maltagliati with pesto; gigantoni with pork ragù; chicken for two; almond semifreddo; pistachio brown butter cake; rice custard gelato.
WINE LIST Italian, emphasizing central and northern Italy. Appealing and accessible in organization and price.
PRICE RANGE Dinner snacks and appetizers, $6 to $17. Pastas, $15 to $18. Entrees, $19 to $27. Desserts, $7 to $9.
HOURS Dinner from 5:30 to 11 p.m. nightly. Breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m. and lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday. Starting Aug. 1, brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends.
RESERVATIONS For prime times call at least two weeks ahead.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Dining room on street level; elevator to restrooms.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.