Elegant Italian dining on a budget may seem counter-intuitive, especially at a place owned by superstar chef Mario Batali and restaurateur Joe Bastianich. Otto Enoteca & Pizzeria is Batali’s most casual (read: cheapest) restaurant, and is intended to capture the essence of a bustling train station, rather than a highbrow dining establishment. Despite the boycott inspired by Batali’s recent blunder comparing bankers to Hitler and Stalin, Otto was filled with clumsy tourists and lively families during lunch.
Hannah and I skipped the impressive list of 500 wines and stuck with a 3-course meal. We started with an appetizer of Salami ($9). Each slice of cured meat was dry and tough, which was actually a wonderful opportunity. Because I had to chew every piece multiple times, I was able to taste more layers of meat as my teeth sunk in. The curing process didn’t leave the salami over-salted, and there were deep flavors that were revealed on my tongue the more I chewed. The experience of each bite of the salami was elevated by an aroma you would expect to find only in an artisan charcuterie.
The least expensive pizza, the Bianca, was simply a thin round of dough drizzled in olive oil and sea salt ($7). The waiter asked if I was aware there was no cheese on it, and suggested another item before I could answer. He quickly apologized when I made it clear I knew what I was asking for. For such a minimal dish, the pizza was boldly flavorful. The olive oil, which was liberally applied, was tangy and smelled amazing. The sea salt added a strong kick to the intensity of each slice, and was fortunately used sparingly. My only gripe (besides the waiter’s condescending comment) was that the pizza became soggier towards the center because the olive oil leaked through, which meant an inconsistent texture to each slice. I did, however, enjoy using leftover salami with my pizza. Because it is so light, the Bianca is perhaps best suited to be an appetizer instead of an entree.
Rather than get a typical meat and pasta dish, Hannah and I asked for the Penne con Noci e Zucca ($10), a dish recently added to their fall menu. The penne was cooked truly al dente, firm enough to enjoy without being hard. The pasta was accompanied by roasted butternut squash and toasted hazelnuts. The beurre noisette that was used to cook the squash gave it such a rich flavor that I’d even recommend it to devout carnivores. The hazelnut pieces added a nice texture, and the entire plate was finished with a soft, smoked ricotta affumicata that was shaved on top. The meal was delightfully fragrant and exceptional in taste.
I didn’t hesitate when the dolci menu arrived. The real reason I made a reservation for Otto was to try the Olive Oil Coppetta ($11), which is enough to share with a friend. The dessert was presented in a svelte glass and contained olive oil gelato, lemon curd, concord grape sorbetto, candied clementines, and fennel brittle. The coppetta of dolci was an adventure to eat, and is best appreciated when indulged slowly. Both the lemon curd and the grabe sorbetto had acute flavors that didn’t require an entire spoonful to enjoy. The olive oil gelato had a the same tangy taste I recalled from the Bianca pizza. The flavor of the olive oil gelato was incredibly sophisticated, and I was only able to experience its full effect in an aftertaste. I wasn’t a fan of the fennel brittle, and didn’t see its place in the coppetta. Fennel is best associated with bread, not sweets. Because of how intense each flavor was, I had a hard time figuring out how each element was compatible with the others. Overall, it seemed like a smorgasbord of items the dessert chef fancied. I enjoyed it, but may stick with their Black & White Coppetta for next time.
There certainly will be a next time for me at Otto. The food is impressive, and a complete meal is within reach under $25 (including tax and tip). Otto has a very fun and boisterous atmosphere, which may seem unusual with food of this caliber. The best thing to do is to embrace it and get a group of friends together for a meal. Otto probably best characterizes the motto of my blog “adventures with good food with good friends.”