Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
When in New York, Eat as the Romans Do
November 12, 2015 -- When business travelers come to New York, they often make a beeline for one of the city's seemingly endless array of Italian restaurants.

As a public service, allow me to recommend two, one from an well-known celebrity chef with a growing national empire and another from a quiet and elegant gentleman who devotes his life to one corner of Midtown Manhattan.

Just in New York City, Mario Batali is involved with multiple eateries--from the upscale and highly regarded Del Posto, Babbo and Esca to the somewhat more casual Lupa and Casa Mono & Bar Jamon. He's also one of the forces behind Eataly, the retail food emporium that includes several on-site restaurants.

Let's consider Otto, his upmarket pizzeria and enoteca (wine bar) located at 1 Fifth Avenue at the corner of Eighth Street, just north of Washington Square Park. Designed to look like an Italian train station, you can grab a drink and antipasti at the stand-up tables in the wine bar or enjoy a meal in the 150-seat dining room that can comfortably accommodate large groups and gatherings.

Referred to as a glorified pizzeria in one of the city's top magazines, Otto does turn out one of the best thin-crust (and grilled!) pizza entrees in this jaded town. It is a pizzeria in the most exalted sense of the word. Before I get totally carried away, let's discuss the lunch experience that four of us shared on a recent holiday weekend.

A chatty and knowledgeable young waitress first suggested we try cauliflower alla siciliana ($6) and the spicy rabe with ricotta salata ($6). These tuned our palates to just the right degree of anticipation. We also tried the $9 arugula with tomatoes (undoubtedly fresh from somewhere) and a $12 cheese sampler of coach triple cream, toma della Rocca and Parmigiano Reggiano. The cheeses blended perfectly with our appetizers, but the kitchen could have been a little more generous with the portions. We also sampled a savory cold poached salmon appetizer ($9).

The three pizzas we tried were a simple Marinara ($9); a $15 Pepperoni topped with spicy salami, tomato, cacio and mozzarella; and the $14 Vongole topped with clams, chilies, garlic and mozzarella. If you prefer individual, thin-crust pizza of exceptional quality, crisp and perfectly prepared, then these qualify to join your roster of favorites. If you're looking for something more than a well-done basic pie, there are also daily specials such as the $45 Black Truffle supplemented with guanciale and eggs.

Otto's fabulous dessert lineup showcases its unique homemade gelati. But I drew the line when it came to the $11 Olive Oil Coppetta, a concoction of olive oil gelato, tangerine sorbetto, pignoli-nut brittle and raspberry sauce. Olive oil gelato? That's taking the art of Italian cooking several degrees too far for my tastebuds. But when three gelati arrived--we also ordered dark chocolate and espresso flavors--I changed my mind and sampled it. All three were outstanding, but the olive oil gelato could certainly win first prize in a dessert competition. Smooth as silk.

And lest you think this is merely a pizza and dessert joint, do peruse the mostly Italian and very deep (several hundred bottles deep!) wine list. You can also opt for wine by the quartino, a quarter-liter carafe that's enough for two light drinkers.

Nine years ago, I offered a short review of the Villa Berulia, a Northern Italian/Croatian restaurant that's been doing business on East 34th Street for the past 34 years. A recent lunch at Villa Berulia provides satisfying evidence that the passage of time has not diminished the quality of the cuisine nor the comfortable old-world atmosphere that distinguishes this eatery. For a neighborhood restaurant without a citywide reputation, it surely deserves the 25-out-of-30 rating for cuisine from the Zagat survey.

The Villa was opened in 1981 by John Ivanac, originally from Croatia, who still presides over his tiny empire with charm and distinction. He has been ably assisted by his sister, Maria, and is now joined by his daughter, Alex. Like many of the staff that have been employed for the entire 34 years, the head waiter Danko is still on the scene, and, like his boss, seems to remember everyone's name and favorite dishes. There was a time in the late 1990s, and well into the new century, when I dined here at least once a week, usually at the same table for three in a private corner. My 70th birthday party, supposedly a surprise, was held in the spacious back room.

On my recent return visit, I decided to start with oysters even though I'm not much of an aficionado. They were fresh and tasty for $13, but I regretted that I did not stay with one of the Villa's headliners. Among them are fresh mozzarella with tomatoes ($15), a classic shrimp cocktail ($18) and the hearty daily soups ($10 or $11). My colleagues seemed pleased with the zesty beet salad ($13) and smoked salmon salad ($15). The appetizers on this particular Friday skewed toward seafood, which has not always been the case.

My main course was filet of sole with capers prepared in a sauce akin to a fish stew ($26). It was fresh and flavorful, a more than adequate stand-in for my usual Villa luncheon fare, brook trout, which wasn't available. One of my companions, a well-traveled and experienced raconteur who has sampled some of the world's best restaurants, declared that his $39 Osso Buco was "the best [he's] ever had." However, my other companion selected the pasta of the day ($24) and his assessment was a less-than-enthusiastic, "It was okay."

We made our dessert choices from a generous cart filled with all kinds of high-caloric delights including chocolate cake and tiramisu. All are in the range of $10. Only one of us opted for wine, a generous $10 pour of Pinot Grigio that drew his unqualified endorsement.

As a footnote, Villa Berulia patrons occasionally ask how Northern Italian and Croatian cuisines coexist. Ivanac explains that Croatia and most of Italy were ruled by the Roman Empire, a fact that still binds the kitchens of both countries together. Any time you drop by, Ivanac will be glad to expound on this historic coincidence and devise a meal that will silence the skeptics.

This column is Copyright 2015 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.