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Thursday
Jul212011

Bar Italia: Nello's newest competition on Madison

  • Restaurant  Bar Italia
  • Cuisine  Italian, *gluten-free menu available
  • Location  768 Madison Avenue (between 65th & 66th Streets), Manhattan 
  • Phone  917-546-6676
  • Directions  Hopstop
  • Atmosphere  modern, Euro, hip-casual
  • Attire  business/smart casual
  • Ideal for  small groups, 1x1, bar
  • Price  moderate to expensive

Not interested in shelling out $40 for a bowl of lobster bisque at Nello?  Um, me neither.  Fret no more, my well-heeled pets!  Alas, there is a new Italian on Madison Avenue and, not only is she serving up less expensive dishes of Nello-caliber, but her chef and owner just so happen to be Cipriani alums. 

Being that Bar Italia also offers a, gasp, gluten-free menu, I invited my friend/fellow food blogger/and gluten-free-goddess-extraordinaire, Erin, to see what all of the fuss was about.  Plus, I was curious: how good could gluten-free Italian food, a cuisine historically centered on gluten, be, anyways? 

*Note: Bar Italia has a regular menu, as well.  It is not solely a GF (gluten-free) restaurant.

Glass floor-to-ceiling French doors, with the ability to open like an accordion on to the street to allow for al-fresco dining, remained closed due to the heat wave.  Luckily, Erin and I were able to score a prime table overlooking Madison Avenue.  Improvising was just as fun! 

White-washed walls and furniture made for a chic, clean, and modern feel, while Italian wall art aided to create a subtle warmth in the otherwise stark space.

By the time we arrived for dinner, the bar was already abuzz with many a well-coiffed socialite.  Moments after being seated, Erin and I were joined by Bar Italia's public relations' executive, Jackie, whom would assist in guiding us through the menu.

Because Erin suffers from Celiac disease (an intolerance for gluten), the three of us chose to begin our meal by splitting multi "gluten-free friendly" appetizers amongst the table.  For our entrees, however, Erin suggested that each of us "do our own thing."

Appetizers

Bruschetta  Although the menu mentioned that this preparation would include "eggplant & roasted peppers" among the chopped tomato and onion, I have a feeling that the chef whipped-up this particular version especially for the three of us.  No complaints here!  Crispy toast points were rubbed with fresh garlic and olive oil before being crowned by a heaping mound of basil-flecked "salsa."  Ample nuggets of parmesan cheese nestled aside the bruschetta. 

Insalata di Spinacini  This lovely bowl of spinach salad came at the suggestion of Erin.  Julienned bits of tart Granny Smith apple and chunks of salty bacon accessorized the leafy greens.  Tossed with a simple vinaigrette, I found this salad to have the perfect balance between 'light and summery' and 'subtly sinful (bacon).'

Polenta Gratinata  For those of you who know me, then it wouldn't come as a shock to learn that this particular appetizer was my "non negotiable."  You know, the one on the menu that I absolutely had to sample.

Warm, creamy polenta was sprinkled with sliced mushrooms and topped with a gooey crust of pungent, melted cheese.  After a handful of bites, however, the melange of rich, heavy ingredients became *almost* too overwhelming. 

La Caprese di Bar Italia  Simple, fresh, classic.  A caprese salad is, typically, a "safe bet."  It's what I order "to start" at many Italian restaurants.  Plus, there's no better time than the summer to enjoy fresh tomatoes!

In my opinion, the quality of the mozzarella is the factor which determines whether or not a caprese salad is a "pass" or a "fail."  Too firm and rubbery?  Fail.  Luckily, the cheese that Bar Italia uses for their version is nothing short of perfection: creamy, buttery, rich, and not served too cold. 

Tuna al Balsamico  Pan-seared, sushi-grade tuna arrived uniformly sliced, encircling a bed of sauteed fennel.  A drizzle of tangy balsamic vinaigrette finished the dish.

Tagliolini al Tartufo  Fresh black truffle nibs, truffle oil, and parmesan cheese were delicately tossed in to a tangled mound of tagliolini noodles.  This dish exuded luxury with every bite sending me further in to a decadence-induced food trance.     

Orecchiette al Ragu' di Vitello  Despite the fact that it was 90+ degrees outside, for some reason, I could not pass-up ordering pasta with my favorite sauce/gravy: veal ragu.  I realize that it's more of a "February entree" - or even something to be enjoyed in Siberia, perhaps - but this is my "go-to" Italian dish, folks!  To hell with the summer! 

I can't tell you if the orecchiette pasta (noodles) was made in house, but I can say that it was cooked perfectly al-dente.  I loved how the "ear shaped" noodles paired with the rich, chunky ragu which, by the way, was dynamite, except for its severe lack of salt.  The veal was incredibly moist and tender, which made the sauce all the more enjoyable.  No gristle here!

Conclusion  If you're looking for a more affordable alternative to Nello, look no further than Bar Italia.  If you've never heard of Nello, yet you happen to find yourself on the glitzy stretch of Madison Avenue, between 60th and 70th Streets, look no further than Bar Italia. 

For gluten-free diners, this upscale restaurant is quite the destination, and rightfully so; however, for non gluten-free diners, I wouldn't do somersaults to get here.  Come when it's convenient/when you know that you'll be in the neighborhood.

~~~

Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle

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