I could hardly believe my ears. It was a Saturday night, sure, but not even 7:30, and the restaurant wasn’t full. Still, I was straining to hear anybody who wasn’t sitting right next to me at our table of seven. And I wasn’t the only one. The poor server, trying to take an order from across the table, bent down to hear and banged her head on the industrial-style lighting.
The night at Cinquecento, the new Harrison Avenue “Roman trattoria” from the Aquitaine Group that’s named after its street number, 500, as well as the beloved little Fiat 500, wasn’t beginning well for anyone. Though five of us were there exactly on time, the host declined to seat us until everyone arrived. Yes, quite a few restaurants around town do this. (At least they didn’t make me leave a credit card number when I book a large table, as some places do; you know who you are.) What could a restaurant possibly lose by letting diners sit at the table they’ve reserved?
There were seats at the bar, where service is attentive, though the on-trend cocktails are trying a little too hard. This place’s obligatory raw-egg drink, called Allegro, is simple and pleasing, made with vodka and blood orange puree, which, shaken with egg white, foams up to a reddish purple. The Armonia is a less successful marriage. A mix of bourbon and chili-infused Campari, it has smoke, bitterness, and heat — too many things in one glass that don’t play together nicely. The spicy Campari is a great idea, and would really refresh in the summer on the patio with soda water or even a splash of orange juice and ice instead of the whiskey. Wine choices are extensive, with everything in bottles available by the glass, quartino (a glass-plus), carafe (half-bottle), and bottle, plus four wines on tap, all sold in those sizes, too.
Summer at Cinquecento will indeed be nice, but for now, early spring’s artichokes are a delightful starter, plump chunks of heart braised in olive oil, then fried so the outer bits are crisp, mixed with salty anchovy and capers to bring out the vegetables’ earthy sweetness. Fresh ricotta comes with toasted hunks of the excellent rustic Italian loaf from Clear Flour, cut into wedges that are still a bit chewy on the inside. The cheese is so smooth and rich that just a few bites satisfy, and there’s plenty on the plate to share between two or three people.
One night a server recommends three choices from the salumi board: a just-slightly smoky prosciutto di Parma, hard finocchiona salami, and sheep’s milk pecorino cheese, but the biggest draws on the plate are the tiny house-made accompaniments: vinegar-pickled fennel, sweet kumquat marmalade, sharp red onion. Another nice relish is the olive and celery root that matches perfectly with the appetizer of grilled octopus (a shame it came out a shade overcooked), though the smear of slow-cooked, buttery celery root puree on the plate, seasonal as it may be in chilly weather, is too sweet and out of balance with the rest of the dish. Tuscan kale salad is too tough, too roughly cut, and doesn’t have enough lemon dressing — toasting the pine nuts, too, might have made it more pleasing.
Both the dining room and bar at Cinquecento, in the former Rocca space, are on the second floor, and a few bar-area tables perch above the restaurant’s entry and dramatic staircase. Cinquecento looks like its owners have invested a lot in design and decor, and from the giant vase of blooming branches at the door to the dangerously low-hanging ceiling fixtures in the dining room, the place screams luxurious contemporary style.
Yes, it screams, pretty much continually. On another visit, this time a Friday night, the din was even worse. Three of us had trouble hearing at our small table. After we had ordered, the dining room was full and the lights were turned down. People in the party seated next to ours actually had to pull out cellphones and use their little glowing screens as flashlights to read the menu. I swear there must be some kind of strange sensory deprivation philosophy at work here.
And it’s a shame, because the menu, a greatest-hits of Italian classics, aims not to deprive but to indulge the senses with flavors big and subtle.
Pastas are consistently good. The classic spaghetti alla chittara al pomodoro is just that — good — and mushroom-truffle butter (made with truffle shavings and truffle oil) fettuccine, served with intense chanterelles, actually tastes like mushrooms. Bolognese isn’t knock-your-socks-off rich, but it hits the flavor mix of pork, veal, and herbs. Continued...