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Del Posto

Del Posto isn’t a four-star restaurant. You already knew that, right? Sam Sifton of The Times is the only critic to have made that claim. Of the city’s  four-star restaurants, Del Posto has the fewest supporters.

Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton gave it just two stars, which errs in the opposite direction, but Sutton recognizes an an essential truth: a four-star restaurant needs to make you say wow! Not after every bite (which would be impossible), or even every dish, but at least sometimes.

There wasn’t much wow in our meal at Del Posto, which is not a complaint, just a reflection of where Del Posto stands, when soberly assessed. Almost every dish we tried, with exceptions I’ll note later on, was extremely well prepared. A careful, competent craftsman is at work here: chef Mark Ladner. Not many Italian kitchens in New York could produce a meal like this.

But a four-star restaurant needs to be a “category killer,” and the food at Del Posto is not. It is roughly on par with the better three-star Italian restaurants, like Marea and Babbo. Del Posto, of course, differs from them stylistically, but the gustatory pleasure it delivers is about the same.

What sets Del Posto aside are the atmosphere and service. Critics may sniff that the grand dining room feels like it belongs in Vegas, and even in Italy itself one probably wouldn’t encounter such a setting. No matter. For an elegant Italian meal, there’s nothing in the city more comfortable, or more relaxing, than Del Posto.

The service, too, does a passable imitation of high-end French models, with its armies of runners, sauces poured tableside, purse stools for the ladies, and so forth.

The wine list is superb, as it is at all of the Batali–Bastianich restaurants. The sommelier steered me away from the $115 Barolo I had chosen, to another bottle he considered a better choice, that cost $10 more. Decide for yourself if that counts as upselling, when you’re already on the hook for half a grand.

But he ably performed the whole decanting ritual far too seldom encountered in these days, and his recommendation was indeed very good.

Del Posto was always very expensive, and it has gone up considerably since Sifton gave it the fourth star. Almost immediately, the à la carte menu was dropped. A five-course prix fixe (now the least expensive option) jumped from $95 to $115, the tasting menu from $125 to $145.

Reservations, which were once plentiful, are now a bit tougher to come by. Four weeks in advance, I could do no better than 6:15 p.m. on a Friday evening. They don’t rush you, though: we were there for over three hours.

There was a trio of amuses bouches (above left). I don’t remember them individually, but they were very good. Bread service (above right) came with two spreads, the latter (on the right) made from lard (pig fat).

On the five-course menu, which we had, each diner chooses an antipasto, a secondo, and a dessert. Of the appetizers, I was more impressed with Lidia’s Lobster Salad (above left) with tomato and celery, which had a good, spicy zing. In comparison, an Abalone Salad (above right), with grilled asparagus and ramps, tasted flat.

I believe our first pasta was the Ricotta Pansotti (above left) with black truffles, probably the best dish of the evening. But that was offset by the evening’s only dud, a Lobster Risotto (above right), which was too soupy and over-salted.

Both entrées struck me as uncomplicated, although skillfully prepared. I thought that Sliced Duck Breast (above left) was sliced too thin, but my friend loved the dish. I had no complaints at all with Grilled Pork (above right), served with a hearty accompaniment of smoked whey, white asparagus, fava beans, and pickled cherries.

The desserts were superior. This being a birthday, the kitchen sent out cake, then wrapped it up for us to enjoy the next day.

I’m afraid we didn’t take note of which desserts we ordered (above), but we loved them. They were the strongest part of our meal at Del Posto. I believe the one on the right is the Butterscotch Semifreddo.

The evening ended in the usual blaze of petits fours (above left) and a wonderful chocolate sculpture (above right) that I felt quite guilty about not finishing.

No other Italian restaurant in New York can deliver an experience like Del Posto—assuming that its full-on embrace of unabashed luxury is your cup of tea. Many diners today find such meals oppressive. If it’s just the food you are interested in, you will eat about as well at Marea or Babbo, at Ai Fiori or Felidia, all of which offer à la carte menus that put you in much greater control over how much you want to order, and how much it will cost.

We werent’ really wowed by anything we tried. The best dishes were certainly excellent. Maybe I would give four stars if there were another one or two dishes as good as the pasta with truffles and the desserts; and if there were no duds like the lobster risotto; or flat-tasting dishes, like the abalone salad.

I’m glad that the owners, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, gave a four-star Italian restaurant their best shot. It is certainly much improved over our first visit, when I gave it 2½ stars. It doesn’t quite deserve four, but New York is better with Del Posto in it.

Del Posto (85 Tenth Avenue at 16th Street, Far West Chelsea)

Food: ***
Service: ****
Ambiance: ****
Overall: ***½

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