“Gusto: SEE EARLIER REVIEW; THIS CHEF HAS LEFT GUSTO”
July 8, 2005
I was prepared to like Gusto even before I got there. I knew the chef, Jody Williams, from Tappo, a short-lived Mediterranean spot styled in the form of a Tuscan farmhouse, located in the space that is now Hearth. I had some great meals there. Several with the ex-boyfriend, the one whom I now refer to as the eater of souls, the destroyer of hope, and the full blast, high-speed blender for my heart. Anyway, now that I am older and wiser, rather than seeking/deriving joy from romantic relationships and risking going through that ripe hell known as a break up (or was that breakdown) all over again, I tend to derive pleasure from meals shared with my girlfriends—Susie, Jamie, Stacey, Diana, Debbie, Cori, Kiri, Court, and Steven (well, the last two are not girls— they are my guy friends—but they count as girls for these purposes).
Anyway, I don’t want to make this all about me (well, really I do, but I won’t), so I will spare you the continued drama as my life as a less than fabulous version of Carrie Bradshaw (without the killer bod, the amazing shoes, the great apartment, or the boyfriend who realizes his mistakes and comes back) and continue with my review of Gusto, which I found to be as good as I expected (read: big fat smile on my face for most of the evening).
First, the space is hot. No, I don’t mean temperature hot, I mean it looks hot, and it makes you feel hot. It is contemporary, lean, and clean—an urban joint with white subway tiled floors, ebony velvet banquettes, a long white marble bar (where we drank several muddled strawberry and proseco cocktails), and modern lampshades layered in concentric circles—elements that help the room exude a sexy, glamorous sense of leisure. The owner, Sasha Muniak, who also owns Mangia, could have easily styled Gusto as another rustic Italian trattoria along the lines of Inotecca, Il Buco, Lupa and the like—wood tables, rustic accents, etc.—but instead he went the sleek route, building a room glorified in black and white and touched with the earth in small details—the exposed wood beams that are left raw against the bright white ceiling, the wide bowl piled high with heirloom tomatoes on the bar, that looks as though it just dropped out of a still life.
Like those tomatoes, chef Jody Williams’ food also takes on a stunning still life quality. Her fried artichokes could easily be the sitting subject of a painting by Vermeer. They were exquisite: three long stemmed beauties, resting on a square of brown parchment paper set on a white porcelain dish, balanced one on top of the other, with a juicy wedge of lemon leaning in on their sides. The artichokes are miraculous—their outer edges are crunchy and greaseless, and their inside leaves tender and soft, almost as though the chef braised the chokes, and then took a match or a lighter to the outer leaves just to crisp them up so you first crunch through the outer leaves—salted just so, squeezed with the right spritz of lemon—and then, happily, reach the artichoke’s warm, soft inner folds. Dating is just not necessary with artichokes like these.
A special that night was something called “foccacia,” topped with cherry tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. We didn’t think we really wanted focaccia (the bread on the table was warm and delicious, served with salted radishes topped with bits of mashed anchovies), but when it arrived at the table next to us, Cori, Steven and I took one look at it, telepathically agreed that we needed one, and summoned our waiter to add it to our order. (Waiters need to be summoned here. The service is not great.) We were not sorry. It was a floppy, just grilled, free form pizza topped with peach-sized balls of milky mozzarella and sweet cherry tomatoes that tasted as though they had just been pulled from a sunny windowsill, then drizzled with green olive oil and herbs. Divine people. Just divine. It does require a bit of work, ‘cause the cheese balls are a bit large and unruly, but it’s fun. We pulled at the pizza, ripping it apart, slicing off hunks of the soft cheese, scooped some of the candy sweet tomatoes on top as well, and annihilated it in no time. Next up was Jody’s fava bean salad—a fava bean festival is more like it—tossed with a chiffonade of escarole and mint and shavings of pecorino that was so simple and so good, it makes you believe that there is no need for food more complicated than this.
And the great thing is, Jody’s food does not get much more complicated than this, and this may be her most revered (culinary) character trait. She is a self-taught cook, a cheery, adorable, and effervescently passionate woman who learned to cook in Rome and Emilia-Romagna, honing her skills at Harry’s Bar in Rome, and then at Felidia, Il Buco, Convivium Osteria, Tappo, and most recently Giorgione. Her respect for ingredients and her less is more approach is the beautiful hallmark of her menu.
Her grilled tuna belly ($25)—a luscious specimen, not so much fatty as it was just impossibly moist and flavorful, like it had been canned in olive oil—was served with crushed olives and lightly sautéed escarole—sharp and slightly bitter but the correct counterpart to the rich belly flesh. Pastas are similarly of the simple is better camp. Strozzopretti, hand made little tubular lines of pasta that once strangled priests, were plated with braised pork shoulder in its cooking liquid, a delicious, easy dish I could imagine being served by many a Nona, but one I thought was mismatched. The hunks of pork (magnificent hunks, by the way) were actually quite large and didn’t quite suit the tube-shaped pasta of choice. But I had no issue with the tagliatelle ($16)—light, frilly ribbons of egg pasta doused with a beautiful Bolognese meat sauce, or the Sicilian meatballs ($19) with pine nuts and raisins, so soft and tender on the inside, they were almost fluffy.
As we finished our second bottle of wine, and tried to find our often absent server to order some more (again, the service is just not as good or as attentive as it should be), Jody came up from the kitchen to say hello, and joined us for a quick chat as more wine was poured. We reminisced about Tappo, and talked about the places in Italy where she lived, and then she decided we need some dessert and popped back down to the kitchen. Moments later she arrived with nothing more than a plate of juicy watermelon, sliced into triangles, and plated so that the pieces stood up, balanced on their curved rinds. “Don’t you just love watermelon,” she said, as she placed the glistening pink fruit in front of us. In unison, each one of us reached for a slice and bit into it, instantly dropping back into childhood. Soon, tables all around us were murmuring about the watermelon. Jody noticed. “Hey, you can all have watermelon! I’ll be right back,” she announced to her dinner guests, and skipped back down to the kitchen, emerging a few minutes later carrying platters of sliced watermelon, and then personally delivering slices to each table. All around us, smart, serious New Yorkers bit into the watermelon, juices running down onto silk ties and into tanned cleavage. Their faces were creased with joy. You could see the years slipping away—age melting—the serious mask of adulthood lost to thoughts of spitting pits across the dining room. It was just a watermelon—something so simple, so fresh, so honest, and so good. Like the restaurant Gusto, it is what we all crave.
Gusto is located at 60 Greenwich Avenue, 212-924-8000.