You won’t find Trattoria Bianca on Eater’s NYC’s Heat Map. If you move in the wake of Nocturnal Nomads drawn by the heat of Tall Women, you aren’t going to end up at Trattoria Bianca. It’s not pretending to be chic. It’s not likely to be listed in winter’s hot new openings. It’s not sizzling. It’s not essential. It’s not on the list of our town’s restaurant obsessives. No one will be impressed if you can get a table. It has nothing to do with Chef Michael White.
Trattoria Bianca is just a very good restaurant. The $21.95 prix fixe dinner is a blessing for your budget. The unique thin crust of the excellent White Pizza (with potatoes and three cheeses) and the fabulously lush pork and sausage meatballs are instantly convincing. You wonder in which of the five Michelin-starred restaurants Chef Julian Clauss-Ehlers worked in overseas did he pick up such rustic tricks. La Côte St. Jacques? Les Prés d’Eugénie?
A pasta lover like me can get lost in the noodle options. There is not just a classic spaghetti carbonara, there is also Bianca’s special carbonara with onions and cream. I’m tempted too by bucatini all’Amatriciana with cured pork and hot pepper. (Not everyone throws in enough heat.)
I am only persuaded to bypass squid ink pasta with shrimp, clams, scallops, burst tomatoes and sea urchin butter because my companions don’t like uni. “Short rib” is the lure that I give into – nicely al dente pappardelle with short rib ragu. In the ratio of stew to noodles, it’s too generous to be considered properly Italian. That’s key here. Generosity comes before authenticity.
Even if the monster-thick Hampshire pork chop is a tad less rare than requested, the spicy ‘nduja sauce with sweet and sour cipollini and bacon cubes is a standout, easily enough for two, as is the rotisserie chicken alongside warm bread salad with raisins and pine nuts for just $21.
The place is handy if you’re hungry before or after whatever at Madison Square Garden. It’s a haven from Penn Station if you’re early for your bus. It’s a load off your feet if you’re exhausted from shopping at Macy’s. It’s a smart-looking oasis with a friendly bar ($10 martini, $11 Negroni, $1 oysters from 4 to 7 pm) in a neighborhood without many.
The staff is like family. Our young server tonight in the uniform -- striped apron, white shirt and red tie -- does a bunny dip to rescue the pen I’ve dropped under the table. Some of the team, like chattily, effusive John, are veterans of two earlier restaurants here.
On my first visit, I ask John how the house can serve New York Strip Steak for just $3 extra on the three-course $21.95 prix fixe when it’s $38 a la carte. “You’ll see,” he promises. Indeed, the dish is not just delicious, it’s architecturally pleasing – slices of rare steak with sautéed broccoli rabe hidden under a tower of crunchy straw potatoes. And it seems he decided one prix fixe entitles us to the $8.50 berries à la mode with mint – many berries, perfect berries.
To be frank, the place is not even new. It’s just a gut job and a cuisinary re-think from a couple of seasoned pros -- restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman and architect Richard Bloch -- for what is essentially a coffee shop on the 35th street hip of the New Yorker Hotel, owned by an ambitious Greek-American immigrant, Alex Sgourdos. He owns the Tick Tock Diner on Route 3 in New Jersey as well as a second Tick Tock under the hotel’s 34th Street stretch. Whiteman and Bloch are fluffing that up too. Then there’s a bank vault below the hotel that will be a restaurant one day soon. I probably wouldn’t be here at Bianca, except that I have known both of them for years.
Confession: I’m having a second dinner with Bloch and his wife. I’m ordering the usual much-too-much to taste a range of options, including a hit parade of dishes New Yorkers favor, including three different steaks and a $23 salmon fillet under “Simple Grills,” and a “Skyscraper” burger with portobello, mozzarella, bacon, and crisp onions that somehow I managed to miss. For a lesson in writing menu porn, you might check this one.
Cannellini bean puree glossed with red pepper sauce and olive oil comes as a giveaway alongside the house sesame loaf. Obviously, Bianca’s garlic bread smothered with warm Gorgonzola is overkill, given the sausage and pepperoni thin crust pizza with smoked mozzarella that’s on its way. As always, tasting somehow leads to over-eating.
A hill of roasted beet thins hides a marvelous cache of arugula and fennel tossed with goat cheese, pear and pistachio, enough for our four, although we have roasted eggplant too, and a dinner-size lineup of grilled shrimp with garlicky gigante beans – just on the edge of cooked enough.
I’m not a big fan of veal Milanese but it’s pop food too, with the New York style chopped tomato salad on top, and it’s just $21 among entrees $21 to $29. Bloch chides himself for not requesting the fish of the day – black bass – “not too cooked,” because in fact, it was. It comes with a few slices of eggplant on a bare plate as if the chef has forgotten to tell his team how to gussy it up.
I complain there’s not enough light on our table, as there is on the bright red banquette tables that rim the room. It seems Sgourdos hires his own work crew and they can’t be everywhere at once. Trattoria Bianca – as handsome as it is with its ivory and white sheen, its smart design detail and its collection of real and reproduction Art Deco advertising posters – might be considered still a work in progress. Bloch makes sure I notice the white oak veneer of the tabletops, tempered with a pale grey stain.
The New Yorker Hotel, with its tiered Art Deco setbacks, has had its own renaissance too. Announced in 1928, it opened two years later with 43 stories and 2,500 rooms at a cost of $22.5 million. Joan Crawford and Fidel Castro stayed there. Benny Goodman performed. In the early 1950s its popularity declined. In 1967 the big red sign on top went dark. Reverend Moon’s Unification church bought it in 1976. In 1994 the hotel reopened. In 2005 the sign was rebuilt with 20-foot letters in LED lights. Now it’s run by Wyndam, and with the city’s booming tourism, the hotel is looking good.
And yes, tabloid fans, our man Sgordos is the same diner king who was targeted for torture and murder by a disgruntled nephew in 2013. The state trooper the irate plotter tried to hire turned him in. With the culprit in jail, Sgourdos has recovered from the shock sufficiently to pump up his aspritions.
The pear tart is a very sweet classic round with caramel.
481 Eighth Avenue on the SW corner of 35th Street. 212 268 8460. Open daily from 11:30 am to 10:45 pm. Bar open till 2 am.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.