Sloooow Food

The chow at Pellini's is worth waiting for. But how long!?

Pellini occupies one of the choicest bits of view real estate in the city: the 23rd floor of the Renaissance Madison Hotel, with its luscious panorama of downtown, sea, and sky. The central bar is glassy and glamorous, the tiered tables and banquettes suggest a tiny scale model of a '30s movie supper club, but in better taste. Pellini occupies the space where Prego slowly and decorously declined over nearly two decades into invisibility and indifference. The news that the space had been taken over by master restaurateur Luciano Bardinelli (late of Sostanza, Settebello, Italianissimo) sparked a good deal of interest. If anybody could revive the dispirited mood up top the Madison, the buzz said, Bardinelli could.

And maybe he can. Officially open only since Feb. 1 (the hotel still hasn't got round to replacing the Prego signage) Pellini already attracts lots of out-of-towners from the hotel downstairs, as well as a lot of promsters out to impress their dates with a penthouse view. For such folk, every minute of the Pellini experience is no doubt golden. But for more habitual diners-out, the place still has a way to go.

It's not that Pellini tries, like many "view restaurants," to take advantage of a crowd basking in maritime sunset by serving mediocre conventional food. Some of the menu items (more than three-quarters of them also available at Bardinelli's Sans Souci in Bellevue) are Euroclassic (appetizer snails, $11; thick onion soup, $7), but just as many are unconventional and idiosyncratic, like the creamy risotto studded with sausage and chicken bits ($14) or a sublime dish of scallops in saffron cream sauce over tender homemade noodles ($13).

With a small kitchen and little storage space (often the bane of top-of-the-building restaurants), the menu is sensibly focused on dishes that can be dished up fast from already-prepared or fast-cooking ingredients: pastas (tiny ravioli stuffed with spinach and cheese and dressed in piquant tomato sauce, $12) or a classic slab of lasagna ($12); braised meats like osso buco (meltingly tender on its bed of saffron-scented risotto, $26); and quick saut鳠like veal scallopine in mushroom-marsala sauce ($23) or giant prawns in a buttery sparkling-wine reduction ($27).

If only a little of the thought that has gone into expediting the kitchen had been devoted to expediting the service! What a pleasure it would be to eat this food, if only it didn't take such an unconscionable time to arrive! Pellini is not large (around 75 settings at capacity) nor crowded (even on a Saturday night) nor understaffed (two hostesses and at least three waiters on each of the three occasions we dined there). And the waiters are invariably polite, attentive, and apparently eager to please every time they appear. If only they could appear more often! From the time one takes one's seat, dinner at Pellini is a slow teeter-totter between culinary satisfaction and frustration bordering on rage, as one sits before one's empty plate, waiting for the bread or butter or drink ordered 20 minutes ago, with nothing to contemplate but the lovely view and the waiter, less than 30 feet from one's table, chatting amiably and interminably with the bartender.

Must be that view!

(photo: Annie Marie Musselman)

The first time we dined at Pellini, we were in no hurry, and the longeurs of the service were as amusing as they were annoying. On our second visit, however, we needed to be elsewhere at 7:30 and notified the staff of that when we arrived two solid hours before. As if to test our tempers to the utmost, it required nearly 20 minutes to accomplish a simple campari and soda (a second, ordered halfway through the meal, arrived at 7:25, along with the bill); with three waiters on duty and a total of six other customers in the restaurant as we sat down, bread requested at the get-go arrived halfway through the entr饬 the butter we requested to go with it never.

Perhaps that's why our main dishes, heavily sauced with anticipation curdling into impatience, seemed so unsatisfactory: The "grilled veal chop with rosemary and demi-glace" ($29) seemed an underdone hunk of waxy-coated meat sitting in a pool of anonymous semi-syrup, the crosta aromatica on the rack of lamb ($32) something resembling a carbonized stubble over meat gelatinous, cold, and raw. We might well have done better ordering the fish of the day, but since said fish was endangered Chilean sea bass, that choice was not open to us. A tasty dessert and flavorful cup of coffee might have lightened our mood, but we had to leave it to others to sample the attractive-looking tiramisu ($7), apple tart ($8), and poached pear ($8) carried past us earlier. The best to be said of the cr譥 brl饠($8) was that it was large enough for three. Had the three of us only had time to eat it!

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