859 9th Avenue, New York, NY
Review by SuSu, Diana, MaceVindaloo, Diasala, Kimba, Anndi
You've GOT to love a place called "Prostitute," yes? Of course, pasta alla puttanesca is that lovely Italian specialty with a sauce salty and strong with capers, anchovies, olives, tomatoes. It's said to be the preferred dish of "the working girl," in that it can be put together quickly, or perhaps it has the salt and tang of a street-wise lady of the night?
It's a good, classic pasta dish, no matter why you like it. And sorry to disappoint you cads and lotharios, but this isn't a whorehouse, and it isn't even decorated like a whore house. It's a perfectly nice, reputable looking establishment on an intersection riddled with Italian restaurants. As some foodies observe, if the place is packed with a genre of cuisine, competition will make the food good, no matter where one goes.
We chose to dine early because we were due elsewhere at a time one considers normal for dinner, and yet it wasn't dinner. Anyway, they were open early enough, and it was easy to get a 5pm reservation. When we got there, the place was mostly empty; normally this is a warning sign, but given the early hour, we didn't think it meant anything.
The drink offerings included lots of reds and whites by the glass, and surprising cocktail offerings like mint juleps (which we have been referring to as "Irish Mojitos" ... think about it!). They are reasonably priced at about $7 for a little carafe which held two servings, so feel free to taste and share.
We liked the stylish little bottles of olive oil and vinegar to go with the somewhat rustic bread. It was good bread, but not superlative. But it was a nice nibble, and you don't want to get over-full from bread.
Frankly, we were full from a great foray to our favorite crabhouse earlier in the day, but the menu offerings just seemed way too tempting! We ended up with Insalatas, including classics like Mozzarella di Bufala, mozzarella and tomatoes dressed with basil and white truffle oil; Antipasto Misto which is a wooden board presented with salami slices, olives, frico, and gorgonzola; Insalata di Pera, a pear and gorgonzola salad dressed with bacon and vinaigrette over mixed greens; Insalata di Barbarietole, with roasted beets, candied walnuts, goat cheese, leeks, and stringbeans.
The first course plates were so good that we forgot to offer each other tastings! If we wanted to try, we had to be rude and jab at each other's dishes ... it's a good thing we're kind of used to that. All the flavors and textures were balanced, and for those of us who were new to how wondrous these fruit and cheese style pairings could be, it was a revelation! This place did a great job with our antepasta course.
For the pasta course, half of us got the namesake dish on a penne, though one of us asked for a hold on the anchovies. Many places would get all upset about such a request since anchovies are an essential part of this dish. But the waiter never batted an eye, just nodded, and when the dish came out, it was perfect for the non-anchovite. For those of us who love the salty, oil-packed fish, it was perfect, too! Others decided to get other classics, like Tortellini della Nona, and were happily surprised that it wasn't like anything our real grandmothers might have cooked! It was a meat-stuff dumpling in a white cream sauce flavored with porcini and shiitake mushrooms, and was so good that again, the offer of a tasting was neglected. The remainder of the table decided to test that abused Roman-American classic, Spaghetti and Meatballs.
Usually, the meatballs in most establishments are huge and overly breaded and served over watery overboiled strands, served two per order. But at Puttanesca, their meatballs were made with veal and pork, mixed generously with chopped parsley, so that you tasted this overused herb in a new and fresh manner. The balls were small and perfectly spherical, and about 8 or 9 of them were presented around the perimeter of a nest of spaghetti which had been tossed in a light, chunky, buttery tomato sauce. Words cannot describe how beautiful this dish was, both to the eye and to the tongue!
The salads were about $7 apiece, the pastas between $12 and $15. Desserts came in around $7 apiece, too. It's really a very reasonable place; even with wine, the bill for food could come to $30 per person for three very delicious courses, with food so good that no one offered a taste to the other diners!
The food was so wonderful we forgot about the place ... it's bare brick walls decorated with wrought ironwork and carnivale masks. We're not sure what any of these elements have to do with prostitution. The tables were set closely together, as is not unusual in a Manhattan eatery, but were arranged to maximize the diner's personal space. We got a nice table in the corner, surrounded by glass in the early evening. It didn't feel like Italy, but it did feel like the very best Italian place to go to for any occasion.
The bathrooms are clean but very, very tiny. Don't count on space to change your clothes in there or anything. And there is a big buffet in the waiting area featuring crostini and vegetable toppings, which would come as amuse-bouche to the table, or we imagine they'd be mighty fine barsnacks for those who were waiting. Though it was empty when we arrived, it was packed by the time we'd left, with a line out the door for those waiting. But we were never rushed, and the waiters and busboys served us efficiently and weren't overbearing in the least. It's wonderful to see such professionalism, especially in this reasonably priced place.
We walked to our next appointment, rather than hailing a cab. We were overstuffed and uncomfortable, though we hadn't realized it at the time. Such is the trauma of excellent fare the restaurant, like its namesake, simply seduced us!
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