I’d heard great things about the original IL MULINO restaurant in downtown New York – its 4.6 Zagat rating, its reputation for great service and ambiance, and its slavish devotion to using only the best quality ingredients.
Learning it was also a celebrity hangout sealed the deal. So I booked a table for Joanne, myself and some friends. Alas, Martin Scorsese and Tony Bennett were nowhere to be found, but I brushed shoulders with enough CEO types and elderly gentlemen with bejeweled ladies to get that “only in New York” feeling.
The meal began with a parade of complimentary antipasti – first, a quarter wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, gouged into generous chunks by our tuxedoed waiter. It was accompanied by slices of a spirited dry salami, and followed by a tableside presentation of tomato bruschetta with a steamed mussel as a counterpoint. And finally, a plate of crispy zucchini slices “bucked up” with garlic and chili flakes.
The hits just kept on comin.’
We started with an order of Clams Casino – perfectly toasty, and beautifully bacon-y.
A well sauced, “frisky” and unforgettable Penne Arrabiata, laced with hot chili flakes, abruptly awakened my palate. Joanne had a knockout half-portion of Linguini Al Vongole – the noodles perfectly al dente and loaded – really LOADED – with fresh clams. That ran about $30. We also shared a Rack of Lamb ($80). And one of our guests had the Double Veal Chop, topped with fried sage ($65 as I recall).
This is NOT Canyon Ranch Food!
Your overstuffed critic ended the meal with a Ricotta Cheesecake and a glass or two or three of Limoncello.
Now, Il Mulino has its roots in Abruzzo, Italy, the region to the east of Lazio (where Rome is). That’s important because the area borders the Adriatic Sea to the east and the mountains to the west. So Abruzzi cuisine has the best of both worlds – abundant seafood as well as lamb and beef from nearby grazing lands.
The location also sits right on the line that divides the vastly different North and South of Italy.
As you may know, there are French culinary influences in the North (during the French Revolution, quite a few of the aristocracy’s chefs fled there). Plus, the upper portion of Italy is blessed with a climate and soil that easily support the raising of cattle (think Bistecca Fiorentina), as well as the production of cream and butter, along with glorious cheeses of all varieties (Gorgonzola and Parmigiano Reggiano being among the best known). Then there’s the prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and all kinds of fruit and vegetables.
The South, on the other hand, has it a lot tougher. Most of the soil is not nearly as rich as in the North. The climate is too hot to raise cattle – and few can afford that luxury anyway.
Southern Italians did, however, import water buffalo, who love the heat, from India, and BINGO: we got Buffalo Mozzarella, one of the world’s greatest culinary pleasures. And the hot climate and rich, volcanic soil around Mt. Vesuvius give us the incomparable San Marzano tomatoes that show up in so many southern specialties. But those are hardly the only assets of the South. Just like the North, seafood abounds here – tuna, swordfish, calamari, branzino, etc. Barnacle all that with the Arabian and North African culinary influences, and….WOW!!
Now, let’s switch gears – from remote Abruzzo to Las Vegas. Yep, Vegas.
Having had such a great experience in New York, Joanne and I feverishly anticipated dining at Il Mulino in the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Place a few years back.
And while it was good, something seemed “off” to me. Despite the glitz of its surroundings, Il Mulino’s dining room was distinctly vanilla and almost utterly lacking in character. I think Il Mulino was in an expansion mode at the time, because they’ve since opened in the Hamptons, Atlantic City, Chicago, Aspen, Puerto Rico and Miami Beach (more about Miami later).
As the disappointments added up, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way rapid growth can beat up on quality. For example: The tableside antipasti service that we loved so much in New York was non-existent here. The salami, zucchini and bruschetta were all pre-set on the table – saving labor at the expense of theater. Instead of presenting our bread choices tableside, an unenthused wait assistant discarded a basket. The Bison Steak seemed out of place in an Italian restaurant. Moreover, both the Gnocchi with Basil Pesto and the Lobster Ravioli were way, way over-sauced.
As J.K. Simmons says in the Farmers Insurance ads: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Well, one thing I know from my numerous trips to Italy over the years and in cooking classes with Marcella Hazan in Bologna and Anna Tosca Lanza in Sicily is: DON’T OVERSAUCE THE F***ING PASTA!
Fast forward to Miami Beach a few weeks ago.
I was a little reluctant to go to Il Mulino on South Beach after our Vegas experience, but I gave it a shot and called to reserve a table by the window. No answer. I tried again that afternoon. The phone rang and rang and rang. No answer. But I was in a forgiving state of mind and decided to call back near opening time, when staff would be there to answer the phone. So at 5 PM, I dialed them up and…no answer.
Now, I’m “red-assed.”
“They just don’t give a shit”….”They’re not trained”….”It’s Thursday night, so I know they’re not closed. WTF is going on?” Don’t they know: hospitality starts BEFORE you enter a restaurant!
Well, being a glutton for punishment (and perhaps eager to dole out some of my own to a hapless waiter), Joanne and I walked over. I was really pissed – all set to enter the joint and “carve them a new one.”
So we walk in, loaded for bear…
…and are greeted with a broad smile by the manager. And before I can spit out my first invective, he leads us to a gorgeous table by the window, the best in the house (#50, I believe). Our waiter shows up immediately and gives us a genuinely welcoming smile and takes our drink order. He’s followed by another server bearing a quarter wheel of Parm. And THAT was quickly followed by me feeling like a first-class JERK.
Privately embarrassed, Joanne and I settled into our chairs in the white on white on white dining room that could have just stepped out of Italian Vogue Magazine.
The fresh-baked bread and focaccia, as well as the antipasti were graciously and politely served tableside – all with style and flair. That was just the start of a parade of some of the freshest, best-crafted Italian food I’ve ever had stateside.
Highlights included Joanne’s Langoustines – so fresh that they may have been swimming yesterday. We shared a loaded-up, pristine Seafood Salad. Joanne savored every bite of featherweight Gnocchi in a lite marinara sauce ($17 for a half portion), and I splurged on the Ravioli Stuffed with Lobster and Porcini Mushroom in a Champagne Cream Sauce with Shaved Black Truffles. Wretched excess? ABSOLUTELY. $25 for a half portion. But that’s about a once-a-year indulgence.
For our mains, Joanne (as predictably as she’d order a salad over a pâté) zeroed in on the fish – a Branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) expertly de-boned at the table and simply dressed with just a light drizzle of olive oil, lemon and a little salt and pepper. I, being the carnivore, ordered the Costoletta – a crisply breaded pan-fried veal chop with the bone attached and, in a contrasting note, topped with chilled arugula and chopped tomatoes (A “cotoletta,” incidentally, is essentially the same thing, but without the bone).
Espresso and a shared Limoncello Cake with Zabaglione made tableside rounded out a wonderful night.
Vegas: You are forgiven.