Simply Delicious Simply PÓ
Pó is located at 31 Cornelia Street in the heart of the West Village, and is open for dinner Monday – Thursday from 5:30 – 11 PM, Friday – Saturday from 5:30 – 11: 30 PM, and on Sunday from 5 – 11 PM. Pó is also open for lunch Wednesday – Sunday from 11:30 to 3 PM. For reservations, please call 212-645-2189 or visit www.pórestaurant.com.
It may be known as the restaurant that catapulted Mario Batali into celebrity, but Pó, the West Village neighborhood hub has become something of a star in its own right. At once the same place it’s always been and an evolved, mature, improved version of its original self, Pó is as much about a love for food and a love for the community it’s been a part of for so long.
It all started quite simply, between best friends (and then unknowns) Mario Batali and Steven Crane, (below), who’d moved back across the country from San Francisco to be closer to family. The restaurant they’d start would lead them to a whole new family—the entirety of Crane’s staff at Pó has been with him for over a decade.
The space they fell in love with had both character and history: as Café Cino it was New York’s first off-off Broadway theater, a place that saw the early careers of Al Pacino and Sam Shephard, and whose rich history earned the spot landmark status in June 2010. What was once a stage for actors-in-the-making would become the stage for Batali’s career and a platform for modern, local Italian food, made simply with nothing but love and the best of New York’s homegrown ingredients.
Indeed, Po retains the integrity of Batali’s original dictum, offering it in a small, warm and endearing atmosphere peppered with neat white clothed tables, a tin ceiling , large mirrors and muted lighting. Even the noise level is tolerable and everyone, from the grazers sitting at the bar to locals, celebrities and walkins are treated with respect, care and a total lack of pretention..
That’s why 18 years after Po opened its doors, it continues to draw chic crowds and stands for the same values—fresh, Italian fare and respect for the community—that initially led to its success. Under Crane’s solo ownership, with his Executive Chef Lee McGrath, Po is better than ever and has mellowed into a Village icon.
That experience begins almost quietly, with white bean crostini (Pictured Right). It looks unassuming, but its flavors are bold, with notes of chili, garlic and rosemary. Smooth beans atop crunchy bread, it’s a fresh start of the meal that opens your eyes and palette for what’s to come. The menu might change seasonally, but some things can never go: so it is with Bob’s Steamed Clams and Mussels, named for Crane’s dad and the dish’s biggest fan. Cooked in a tomato brodetto with black olives and the gentle spice of fresh black pepper, it’s a fresh take on the classic whose leftover sauce is best soaked up by the Sullivan Street Bakery bread served alongside. Absolutely fabulous!
An appetizer of Cured Tuna is dressed with the bright natural colors of chili oil, piled delicately over thinly sliced artichokes and red onion-speckled frisee, a blend of textures and vibrant flavors that indicate the best local ingredients in their freshest preparations. Asparagus get dressed up in melted, gooey fontina before they’re studded in thickly sliced almonds and dressed in parsley oil, the grassy, vegetal flavors taking richness from the cheese and nuts. And all salads are fresh as the farm, copious and delicious. We adored Beets and Carrot Crudo with pistachio-crusted goat cheese and an equally delicious composite of crunchy Sugar Snap Peas, radicchio, pine nuts & caccio d’Roma.
The reputation of remarkable pasta started by Batali is taken even further by Chef McGrath, whose spin on Mario’s White Bean Ravioli comes piped into a red tomato envelope and laden with a tangy, sweet balsamic butter sauce. Locals wait for summer to arrive to enjoy his Sweet Pea Pappardelle, which makes its appearance each year and delivers an unusual freshness and robustness, in part due to a splash of fresh mint that balances the peas’ natural sweetness. Homemade tagliolini pasta, sauced with impeccable rock shrimp and red butter sauce was complex and beautifully balanced.
Crane often boasts about his friend Guy Jones of Blooming Hill Farm in the Hudson Valley who he’s been working with since the start; he’ll proudly say its to his credit that his vegetable dishes taste so darn good. Even still, the flavor combination is brilliant, as unusual as it is memorable.
Given his proximity to an array of artisanal food purveyors—Murray’s Cheese, Refetto Pasta, Florence Meat Market all make daily bike deliveries—it’s no surprise that so many dishes shine simply for the respect paid to quality ingredients. It’s especially evident with Pó’s Grilled Guinea Hen, cooked with saba (a sweetened red wine reduction) and charred, revealing a sweet depth of flavor not normally associated with the cut. (Pictured Below) Enjoy it with a side of fregula, an Italian spaetzle-like pasta that’s made from semolina and toasted like couscous, combined with shaved asparagus and scallions for a light, green kick. Pórcini Crusted Cod, a Pó favorite, is fall-apart tender, with the lovely funk of the mushrooms and a warm borlotti bean and broccoli rabe salad, all kissed with chive and smoked paprika oils and pepper sauce.
For dessert, an affogato parfait combines coffee gelato from Il Laboratorio del Gelato, chilled cappuccino, and a chocolate caramel sauce—an addicting addition to a classic combo. A Ricotta Cheesecake is dressed in Vermont maple syrup, sweet with an inherent savory quality that makes for a light ending to the meal. Don’t miss the house biscotti, one citrusy in flavor and studded with chocolate chips, and another in the classic pistachio: a refreshing instance of Italian indulgence.
The wine selection by the charming Sommelier-host, Fredi Romero, is easy to negotiate, well chosen and beautifully priced with lots of bargains in the $40 to $50 level. The 2006 “Morellino di Scansano Marteto” Super Tuscan is 85% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot, and spent 5-6 months in French oak barrels. A full-bodied, powerful Morellino, it offers terrific persistence in its expression of black cherries intermingled with sweet toasted oak. Anticipated maturity and is ready now and food friendly.
Service is perfect: Helpful, knowledgeable but never pushy or rushed. The bartender (there is no hard liquor served) is special. His personality radiates throughout the room and you won’t find better cappuccino anywhere. (he prepares it at the bar).
In all, Po is a great illustration of how restaurants can evolve in the city—how they can get to a point that’s so comfortable and so right, that every diner feels it. We loved Pó and so will you.
(Enjoy a combination of all the above with Pó’s accessible tasting menu, a $53 affair that spans six courses. For lunch, it’s even more accessible: a feast of four courses chimes in at just $35. And when you make your reservation, expect it to be documented on the same 89-cent clipboard that Crane has used for every day of Pó’s existence since 1993.)
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