BY ELENA MANCINI
In the heart of Alphabet City–a neighborhood once labeled as off limits to wide-eyed tourists, and well anybody not in the mood for dodging stray bullets– stands Barbone, an intimate and rustic wine bar with a roaring kitchen manned by talent. The menu is contemporary Italian, and it isn’t vast, but what is on it is inspired and well worth the trip off the beaten East Village path. The location point brings me to a practical point, Barbone takes reservations. Avail yourself of this convenience since the place has long ceased being a neighborhood secret.
The menu is contemporary Italian and features a good balance of pastas, meats a few fish dishes and an interesting variety of appetizers which include . The ingredients reflect a representation of the foods from the northern regions of Italy with polenta, saffron tagliolini and wild boar (no red sauce dishes here). However the cuisine from Rome receives a few hearty nods here with carciofi alla Giudea among the appetizer choices, gramigna alla carbonara pasta and pecorino flavoring a number of the dishes. The weakest part of the menu was decidedly the dessert section–not even on the menu.
During my visit, dessert options were recited to our party by a waitress with a markedly tentative knowledge of the items featured. There were four in all. As late as November, two of the four dessert options offered were cold: a chocolate gelato and a semifreddo dessert. The other two included a generic panna cotta and a marscapone tortino with pistacchio nuts. Sanguinely decadent chocolate or respectable fruit dessert options were notably absent.
The asparagus fries with light wine batter served with a side of pancetta aioli is a scrumptious appetizer treat, and one that will be consumed compulsively by your dining companions, in spite of their politeness ceremonies. The warm roasted tomato with pesto spiked ricotta, though less sharable, holds its own palatal flavor-texture rewards.
The saffron tagliolini with roasted corn fresh crab, mussels and fresh chili and the cavatelli with chicken sausage, white wine and sage were particularly stand out dishes. The tagliolini were tender while retaining a toothsome texture. The unmistakably fresh seafood ingredients were prepared in a way in which championed the inherently vibrant flavors of the fish. The white wine added some punctuated tang and the chili an interesting counterpoint to a dish with otherwise elegantly amalgamated flavors.
The chicken sausage cavatelli with white wine sauce were seasoned to perfection and the chicken sausage was lean, plump to the bite and had a subtle peppery kick. The white wine tied the dishes flavors together beautifully, and the light, pillowy texture of the cavatelli enhanced the enjoyment of the dish.
The only critique to note on the pasta dishes are the portions. While the menu includes taste portion and full portion options for the pastas. The full portion options, priced between $16-$18 veer on the small size for the price point. Flavor mavens may not mind this, but if you are aiming to be heartily filled by a pasta dish, be sure to budget for an appetizer or a second course, or get the rest of your party members on board and opt for a tasting menu. A five course tasting menu begins at $39.
The meat dishes are also delicious. The slow-roasted rabbit in porchetta stew is a gourmet delight. Tender textures coupled with a medley of sweet, tangy, gamy flavor notes and succulent pork filling, it’s highly worth recommending. Another successful dish is the semi-cornish hen with roasted potatoes. These dishes are eminently satisfying and reasonably priced within the low $20 range.
In the end, despite the paucity of options, and the less than enthusiastic presentation of them (blase server), I succumbed to dessert. I ordered the tortino al formaggio with pistacchio nuts. Made with marscapone, the round mold of cheese cake was a light creamy, satisfying treat. Generously covered with a field of pistachios, it was a simple, but uncompromisingly delicous.
Last, but certainly not least in order of importance for Barbone is the wine list. It is exclusively Italian and spans all of the regions of the peninsula. It’s sizeable in its offerings and features a range of prices. The bar staff and sommeliers are friendly and helpful. For our table, we requested a dry, crisp white wine with some body and low acidity. After presenting us with several options, the sommelier recommended a Sicilian Grillo (Fondo Antico, 2008) to us. Priced at $35, it was an excellent choice.