Umberto's Clam House
Broome & Mulberry Streets, Little Italy, NYC
Review by Diana DeRiggs
I decided to go with his decision for another reason -- the staff here didn't accost potential diners on the street! If you walk down Mulberry Street, which is lined with Sicilian and mainland Italian restaurants, waiters/hosts stand among the tables set up on the sidewalk and look you in the eye and say, "For two, right here!" It's rather unsettling. And it seems like the restaurant is packed, but if you look beyond the sidewalk-side tables, the diners are stacked up toward the front of the dining room. The rooms are otherwise sparsely populated or empty. It seemed the ultimate in dining terrorism.... Eat here! Sit here! Look happy!
So we kept walking, treating them like we treat telemarketers. Finally, ahead of us loomed Umberto's, and though it's doors were thrown open, they didn't have "sidewalk tables" and the staff didn't stand there like carnival hawkers, ready to pounce. That's when the date told me about the radio commercials, so we decided to try it.
Okay, let's get the big criticism out of the way. The service is slow, or rather, our waiter, Manny, was too busy chatting up the glam Italian chick behind the bar, who was setting up for the dinner service. Whenever he remembered us, he was efficient and polite, but with his back firmly to us, it was rather difficult to get his attention. They also didn't bring out bread while we waited for our meal, and considering it was rather a late lunch, we were uncharitably ravenous and kind of cranky about it. Fortunately, the busboy was usually around to flag down, and the other waiters didn't do the "I'll tell your waiter" thing, which always forces you to explain your demand twice.
I wanted zuppe de pesce (which some people know of as the base for Manhattan clam chowder), but it is normally made with mussels, which I can't have. I don't know if I'm allergic to them (other shellfish don't affect me), but I always end up violently throwing up after eating them. Sometimes it's worth it, since I LOVE mussels in red sauce, or alla marinara ... but if I'm doing that, I have to plan for it, you know? Anyway, so I grilled the waiter, asking about the base, is it made to order, do they use a stock, etc. I ascertained that it was possible to get the zuppe made without a trace of mussel, so I risked it. My partner got New England clam chowder and lobster ravioli. For my second course, I got shrimp scampi over rice, and we ordered the house garlic bread.
The garlic bread was delicious -- rough-cut fresh garlic and parsley on buttered bread, sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese and run under the broiler. The garlic had just cooked and retained it's spicy bite. Everyone at the table had better have some, or you won't be able to stand each other! We ended up ordering a second serving of it.
The zuppe was nice and briny, no mussels at all. There was a butter-sweated mirepoix (see Susu's cooking school glossary!) in a seafood stock and tomato soup, dotted with roughly cut scallops, shrimp, and baby clams. It was really good, very refreshing on a chilly day, and not heavy with cream. Oh, stuff you should know about New England clam chowder in New England -- it tends to be white gravy with herbs and clams. It's really weird, it never used to be like that, but it is now. Cream of mushroom soup tends to be like that, too. It's frankly a turnoff, not sexy at all. But this place does it right, where the texture is a cream soup. It's slurpable, filled with chunks of clams, potatoes, onion, and not over-herbed or over-creamy. It reminded us why New England clam chowder is the most sublime of cream soups.
The lobster ravioli obviously made use of leg and carapace meat, which is richer and sweeter than tail meat. It was very good, and the plate was generous. Likewise with the scampi, which is pan-cooked butterflied shrimp in a garlic, butter and parsley sauce, the whole poured over a plateful of rice. It was nice this way, rather than on the ubiquitous linguini, and the rice soaked up the sauce very nicely.
Other tables ordered squid, salad, etc. and the portions looks delicious and large. You order anything, and it would be good!
It wasn't cheap though, and there were no "extras" like a green salad or bread included. For two of us with one drink apiece, it cost over $70. We would have been fine with it, but the lack of efficient service was a real dampener on the whole experience. But the food was good, and when you could get their attention, they were nice.
Another unacceptable touch ... when the bill came, we gave them a credit card, and the receipt came back to us to sign. To our surprise, in the slot marked "tip" they had pre-written in "CASH" and put the total, sans tip, on the "total" slot. I wondered if that meant service charge was already included? No, it turns out they prefer the tip in cash, which smacks of tax evasion. I was really upset by this, and their tip went down from the standard 20% in Manhattan (which had already slid down to 15% because they were difficult to flag down) to 8%, which we figured would more or else go to the busboy. We told them so, in any case.
For the food, I'd go again, but be warned in advance that they are not quite unacceptably eccentric regarding their tips and service. That's too bad, eh? Well, as the photo shows, down the street is a Chinese place and a Burmese place. We might try those instead. This is New York, after all. We don't have to put up with this idiocy.
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