Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Bellavitae
24 Minetta Lane, New York, NY
212-473-5121
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diana, Jools, MostlyIrish

This little downtown eatery is purported to be a "cheaper version of Mario Batali's Lupo or Babbo." You do get what you pay for at any number of places, but still, New York City is certainly a place where one can ferret out a bargain. Batali's "Po" was an awesome under-$15 per person type of place a few years ago, a real jewel. He closed it to open Babbo, but the possibility to find a Batali-esque bargain was worth the trouble and risk of trying something new.

The space was clean and new, and on this late Saturday night in a dowdy location, it was mildly packed. We looked forward to this kind of trattoria-meets-tapas-bar place, since that means smaller plates to be ordered and shared with the table.

All in all, it was a fine experience, but it didn't "wow" any of us. Though it may have been cheaper than a Batali experience, it cannot compare to a real Batali restaurant experience, and Bellavitae may be doing itself an injustice to try and put itself into the same league.

As for "cheaper," it really wasn't. Batali's Casa Mono had a similar pricing but that experience was truly spectacular and better wine list and service, to boot. The evening cost us $300 for the group, and while that may not be expensive in the big city per se, it's expensive for the neighborhood, service, and food that we got. Even plating was kind of dowdy, too.

The schtick here is "fresh native creative Italian cuisine" (our words, not theirs) but nothing was singing out to any of us. It was simply decent restaurant food; not a bargain, and you do get what you pay for. And it did make us understand how very special Batali's restaurants really are.

It's a very romantic sort of place. The interior is like a converted farmhouse with dark beams, brick and stone walls, black wooden tables for two. It's not as cramped as other fashionable places, but like all Manhattan restaurants, there isn't the type of spaciousness others from outside the city may expect.

The service was perfunctory. The chef-de-cuisine came out to ask how our meal was, and when we replied to the positive, she pertly said, "Good!" then turned heel and went quickly onto the next table. No attempt at conversation, no interest in really being there. It made us feel like we should not have come.

The bussers tended to come by too frequently and take away plates hastily, and the bar was late in getting us drinks. You would think that wouldn't be a problem, except that some things were specifically ordered to go with some food, but the timing ended up being thrown off.

There is a complaint about the fresh pasta, a dish a place like this should not find hard to get right. It didn't taste "freshly rolled-out" to us, and what's more, the orichetti was undercooked — gummy exterior, "crunchy" layer in the middle. The figs in prosciutto were apparently "to die for," but in our opinions, if you die for this, you're a loser. Maybe they were not in season or something, but the figs didn't taste like anything and the prosciutto was rather bland, too. The bacalão in puttanesca-style sauce was ordinary and a bit spongy.

Actually, none of the appetizers were terrific. The chunks of Parmesan were brought out with a bottle of the aged basalmic vinegar, which was sprinkled by the waiter onto the cheese, then taken away. We think it was just to show off the bottle ... but really, one could put cheap basalmic into a bottle. No point in showing the already-opened bottle! And it wasn't special tasting.

Neither was the prosciutto, despite the shiny red slicer at the back bar, which seemed to be there just to slice prosciutto. It wasn't bad, just wasn't spectacular. The salmon and cream cheese breads with caperberries were like tiny servings of a New Yorker's average Sunday brunch, sans the bagels or the de rigeur sections of the New York Times.

The octopus was really good and very tender, as were the grilled lambchops, the grilled radiccio, and the desserts: semifreddo, panacotta, and an espresso milkshake sort of thing. In general, go for the grilled stuff or the desserts.

Given the cost for the five of us, but it didn't feel like "value." Still, it was a pleasant meal with friends, just not a "wow" meal (with some of it badly cooked) and not a bargain. Too bad.

We take it back; on consideration, this wasn't a decent meal, partly because of the way it was billed to us as Batali-esque. We think they should stop touting themselves as a cheap version of someone way out of their league. Then maybe we wouldn't have been so very set up for disappointment.


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