Restaurant review

Restaurant review: Tom Colicchio’s Vallata in Union Square

The problem with Tom Colicchio’s new restaurant, Vallata, isn’t it the food, most of which is very good and some of which are wonderful. Everything is Italian, in a rustic trattoria style made with ingredients picked from the Union Square Green Market, a few blocks from the Vallata location on East 19th Street. “Colicchio Italian cuisine” may not be a revolutionary idea, but at least it’s a cohesive idea that has never been tried before.

The problem is, the food raises expectations for the rest of the experiment that Mr. Colicchio doesn’t pursue, or even seems to be enjoying. The cuisine puts Vallata in direct competition with Via Carota, Lilia, Misi, Vic’s and Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, to begin with. Each of these places has an atmosphere calibrated to draw you into one vision or another of relaxed European cuisine, from the farmhouse look designed by an architect in Misi to the jumble of “Antiques Roadshow” of Via Carota.

After opening in April as a temporary pop-up, Vallata is granted permanent status, Colicchio said in a phone call Monday. However, it was not given a clean atmosphere. The dining room, next to Mr. Colicchio’s flagship, Arts and crafts, is a goofy pastiche of bland, vaguely corporate design and odd decorative items that have been used in other Colicchio restaurants.

The standard cliché about restaurants of the rustic-Italian genre, immortalized in dozens of Zagat’s blurbs, is that eating there is like a trip to Italy without a plane ticket. Vallata manages to reverse the cliché: you don’t think for a second you’ve left New York, but you start to think that the restaurant itself might need a vacation.

Mr. Colicchio may well think that Vallata’s cuisine is strong enough to fend for itself. He wouldn’t be far. He and his cooks have been buying from Union Square farmers since the 1990s, and the food he’s best known for has always been deeply influenced by the minimalist tension of Italian cuisine. At Craft in particular, he relied on Italian cuisine and steakhouse tropes to break with the New French cuisine model of gravy and garnished plates that had been the default style of ambitious American restaurants since the 1980s.

And so it’s no surprise to get a bowl of Romano beans in Vallata that have been braised and then dressed in a ripe, reheated tomato pulp. What you don’t really expect, however, is how flexible the beans are – not crunchy or mushy, but almost as silky as fresh pasta, and just as good for carrying the sauce.

Young, barely emerging artichokes are chipped mandolins not much thicker than the wings of a dragonfly. They sit in lemon juice, fresh mint, and over a pinch of dried chili flakes until they lose their squeak but not their crunch. There are only a few weeks out of the year that you can find artichokes worth eating this way, and only a few restaurants are waiting for those weeks to unfold. It’s a gift to have a new one in town.

The summer squash salad cut into thin girdles and dressed in a deeply aromatic strain of basil evokes summer just as intensely, but in a calmer way. You can follow this dish with another homage to basil: the long, dangling strands of strozzapreti abundantly topped with pesto, without any monotony.

Cacio e pepe had been cooked a bit too long the night I tried it. But the hand-rolled cavatelli were perfectly firm to cling to the tangy embers of grated oxtails with raisins and a sweet and sour undertow of cocoa.

As at Craft, the dishes are served in a family way, at least in the sense that the restaurants define this term. Most real families would like more than three meatballs for the table. But in Vallata, each is about the size of a baseball. Made with veal and ricotta, they are ivory colored on the inside. These beautifully tender cheese and meatballs sit in enough tomato sauce that I find myself using both slices of toasted sourdough to soak it up and then wishing I hadn’t eaten the whole piece of focaccia by the minute. he arrived.

More toast is served alongside braised chicken with red peppers and tomatoes. It looks runny, but with just one taste, you realize that “water” is the result of trapping all the flavors of the chicken and vegetables in the pan. It is an amazing dish.

There may be too much fighting in the broccoli rabe thicket that towers over a plate of lean lamb sausage. But most of the menu is good enough to make you wish that so much effort was put into other aspects of the restaurant.

You start to wonder how much Mr. Colicchio is attached to the idea before you walk in the door. The name Vallata hangs on the window, but it is less visible than the Craft Private Dining sign. Two guests trying to meet me in Vallata were so confused that they walked down two doors into Craft to ask for directions.

Mr Colicchio renovated the private dining room shortly before Covid arrived. In the era of the pandemic pivot, no one will blame him for turning it into a restaurant when the private catering business evaporated. But so far, he hasn’t given Vallata a personality of his own. The cooks, led by Bryan Hunt, who heads culinary operations for Mr. Colicchio’s restaurant group, stand side by side facing the dining room. They look like participants in a game show set in the breakfast buffet area of ​​an upscale hotel chain.

The only touch that evokes a trattoria is the brown butcher paper on the tables. The walls are adorned with three paintings of recently moved cows from one of Mr. Colicchio’s restaurants in Las Vegas. If you’re hoping the music will set the mood, forget it. The playlist ranges from Paul Simon to Billy Joel to Echo and the Bunnymens to David Bowie. It is as if Mr. Colicchio brought a mix tape which he found inside an old Walkman in his basement.

An Italian restaurant overseen by Tom Colicchio deserves its own reading list. He also deserves a separate room. You want to believe he’s excited about the project. But there’s little sign of it, so instead you wonder if you shouldn’t go and eat at another restaurant where the food pretty much follows the same lines and where the managers seem to be, you know, inside.

What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving stars.

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