New York—Going to New York always puts me in a panic. So many restaurants for the trying, but how to choose? More important, how to pay?
Of course, who wouldn't want the latest delights from Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Jean-Georges or the fresh-from-the-sea creations at Nobu? But every meal can't be a budget breaker. Plus, there are those times when everyone is famished but a four-star restaurant isn't within sight. Nor would reservations be possible on a whim at this hour anyway.
New York is a city so big that there's something for every dining need. Say your train pulls in at 2 p.m., and by the time you've checked into your hotel, it's 3. Lunch is over by now at many restaurants, and though there are plenty of pizza shops, why settle for that? The famed team of TV chef Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich, who have their hands in such star settings as Lupa and Esca, have opened Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, a pizza, antipasti, and gelati place in the West Village, not far from Washington Square. It serves from 11:30 a.m. to midnight without a break.
The decor is Roman, with a big train schedule board and a large wine bar in the front. In the back, the tables are full -- two women having a late lunch, a few couples, a family with two small children and a nursing baby, and two women with infants. There's a comfortable feeling to the room, with its rusty-red walls and dark woods, making lingering seem natural even in the middle of a weekday.
The menu is simple, but the fare, in the Batali style, is rustic yet stylish. A four-cheese pizza sports a thin crust, with the cheeses (mozzarella, taleggio, caciocavallo, and ricotta) neatly divided into sections and dotted with tomato. An arugula salad with tomato covers a large plate, and a bruschetta, or toasted bread, covered with sauteed escarole and pignoli nuts makes for a satisfying lunch. The gelato, saved for another visit, shows style, too, with such flavors as olive oil, orange-date, and Meyer lemon with blueberry. The children across from us stick to vanilla.
Other good bets for eating well without a punishing tab are several restaurants on the Lower East Side. Alias, in a converted storefront on Clinton Street, combines a casual ambience with an ever-changing menu. The prices for entrees stay under $20, and the cooks, including chef Anthony Rose, can be seen working in the open kitchen. A salad of grilled Bosc pears and excellent mortadella over greens starts a meal. Continuing in a light vein, there's Alaskan salmon, perfectly cooked to be rare in the center, with turnips and couscous. For the heartier appetite, grilled Vermont-raised pork with sauteed kale and fingerling potatoes is a savory treat.
Since the meal and the bill are reasonable, a chocolate butter tart with raisins makes perfect sense. It's even better as my teenage son points out the television star deep in laughing conversation at a table near us. New York glam at a sensible price -- who could ask for more?
Otto, 1 Fifth Ave., New York, 212-995-9559. Alias, 76 Clinton St., New York, 212-505-5011.