About 10 years ago, tapas bars started popping up all over New York City. The tapas bar wasn’t a exactly a new concept, but in a city full of commitment-phobic singles, the allure of a restaurant where you can get your fill without having to betroth yourself to a single entrÃ©e, where you could instead sate your desires with a wide variety of victuals in one sitting, became suddenly undeniable. That sangria was given a equitable place at the table and the price-per-plate was usually low didn’t hurt either.
Within a few years the trend was no longer confined to Spanish fare; many types of cuisine picked up the tapas torch, but perhaps none so successfully as Italian. Now, I hazard a guess that Italian “small plates” (as they are now termed) joints outnumber tapas bars in New York–one can hardly turn a corner (especially in lower Manhattan) without finding one of these bruschetta- and wine-mongers. They follow the same model with varying degrees of success: antipasti, bruschetta, pressed sandwiches, salads, and cheese and meat plates, served on small white plates, set on rustic wood tables, with wines often served in stemless glassware (the reason behind this trend is not at all clear). Some distinguish themselves by saying they are enotecas, or wine bars, but trust me, c’est la mÃªme chose (or shall we say, Ã¨ la stessa cosa).
After Manhattan became flooded with these places, they began to pop up in my neighborhood in Brooklyn with places like Panino’tecca, and the much-ballyhooed Frankies 457 Spuntino. So when Bocca Lupo opened on Henry Street a year and a half ago, I hoped for the best, but feared the mediocrity that is often bred by market over-saturation.
While they aren’t breaking any new ground (and as some have remarked, they are in fact treading much ground already broken specifically by ‘ino in the West Village of Manhattan), they have well-deservedly become a popular neighborhood dining destination. They also have become the reasonably priced restaurant to which I compare splurge meals (e.g., “I have had food I enjoyed more at Bocca Lupa than this expensive dinner I just had at PÃ³.”)
To start with, I highly recommend the vegetable antipasti plate. It is not an uninspired mix of grilled vegetables, but perfect sautÃ©ed wild mushrooms, marinated vegetables, beet salad, asparagus, broccoli rabe, and whatever else they happen to whip up for the day. The bruschetta with white bean purÃ©e and olive tapenade varies form visit to visit (sometimes the puree is thick, sometimes runny, sometimes flavored strongly with rosemary, sometimes not), but is reliably good enough that we more often than not order it. They have a lot of other tasty bruschetta–the truffled egg salad with asparagus is another fave. They depart from the typical small plates model in that they offer a nightly risotto and pasta dish, which is a refreshing difference from the bread-heavy menus of most of these places.
If I have any complaints, it is that the food is inconsistent; sometimes it is just okay, but sometimes it is absolutely divine. Their biggest issue seems to be with seasoning. For instance, on our last visit, the beet and truffle risotto and especially the pasta with gorgonzola and yellow squash we shared were oversalted. The oversaltiness wasn’t enough to render the dishes inedible, but I would have enjoyed them more had the salt been moderated. Conversely, the leek and truffle bruschetta suffered from undersalting to the point of blandness.
Consistency issues aside, there us much to recommend Bocca Lupa. Even when the food is isn’t as good as it can be, it is still better than other places in the nabe. Everyone can find something on the menu that they will like (it is kid- and vegetarian-friendly). Their wine list is substantial and reasonably priced. And there are little touches, such as the garnish on a plate of bruschetta–a throwaway at most places–here is unbelievably delicious marinated cauliflower, of which I could eat an entire plate alone. The desserts are also great. I love the banana and nutella panini, and the last time we went, we had a new item on the dessert menu: mascarpone cheesecake with apricots. I am not a huge fan of cheesecake in general, but this was delicious: the rich and creamy mascarpone was well paired with the sweet-tart, gooey apricots. I’d like to see more new items added the the dessert menu, as the dessert menu has remained exactly the same since opening until the addition of the marscapone cheesecake, and I am a little bored with it.
Though there are some things Bocca Lupo can work on, there are many more things that it gets right. I can’t think of anything that would recommend it more than the following: We took my parents-in-law there soon after they had returned from a vacation traveling around Italy. They said the meal we had Bocca Lupa was better than anything they had in whilst in the motherland. As anyone who has eaten in Italy would tell you: that is high praise indeed.