Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria (“IBA”) doesn’t deserve the three stars Pete Wells of The New York Times gave it a fortnight ago, but you already knew that. It just might be the single craziest Times review of the last decade—and there have been some howlers, believe me.
What’s sad is not that IBA is overrated. What’s sad is that a good, earnest “neighborhood-plus” restaurant is now getting hammered with crowds it cannot handle, who arrive with expectations it cannot possibly meet.
Of course, it is also sad that the Paper of Record thinks believes IBA is in any respect comparable to Babbo or Marea, Italian restaurants with three deserved stars; or that it is in any respect superior to Lincoln, which has just two; or Osteria Morini, which has one.
This is not to take anything away from what owner Donna Lennard has done, which is to create a cute Italian market (an alimentari) with a pretty good sandwich shop by day (when they don’t run out of stuff—which seems to happen a lot), and an endearing (if crazily crowded) Trattoria by night.
The market came first: they sell cheeses, salumi, olive oil, chocolates, and the like. Then came the restaurant. It was clearly part of the plan all along: there is a bright, open kitchen in the back, and there are two bars. But stools and tables (several of them communal), surely as many as the law allows, have now been crammed into almost every nook and cranny. Plan on getting to know your neighbor really, really well.
It’s a three-meal-a-day operation, and the market remains open all the while. Kim Davis of The Times says serve the best porchetta sandwich in town. But presumably it’s mainly the dinner menu that got them three stars. (Click on the photo, above left, for a larger image.)
It’s heavy on appetizers (an even dozen of them, $12–18), pastas (a half-dozen, $17–21) and salumi (various prices; assortment for $32). There are just four secondi ($29–38)—and one of those, the spit-roasted short ribs ($38), is actually an order for two, though the menu fails to so state.
The bread service (above right) is pretty good, but not quite deserving of critic Wells’s near-orgasmic description. It’s made in in-house and a tad fresher than you’ll get most places, but hardly anything to change your life. I was actually a bit more addicted to the bread sticks. [Addendum: After I wrote this, the head baker asked me to come in for a bread tasting, where I had quite a bit more than the simple ciabatta shown here.]
House-cured salt cod fritters ($12; above left) are a decent snack; certainly a few steps better than Mrs. Paul’s.
I had set my hopes on the aforementioned short ribs (above right), not realizing that it was a dish for two. Plenty of restaurants would charge the same ($38) for a solo portion, so after being properly warned by the server, I went ahead and ordered it anyway. It’s the whole short rib, tender and luscious, with a garnish of olives, celery, walnuts, and horseradish, and—so says The Times—peppercorns and coriander seeds. It is awfully salty. That, more than the size of the portion, is why I stopped eating it halfway through.
On a second visit, I tried the Fried Rabbit ($15; above left). A leg, thigh, and “wing” are coated in an appealing bread crust with black pepper, honey, and lemon. Paccheri ($21; above right), with braised oxtail, greens, and parmigiano, was far less impressive. The pasta was too chewy and not warm enough.
IBA’s sister restaurant, just-plain Il Buco, to which I haven’t been, opened nearby in 1994. It received one star from Ruth Reichl—which in those days was a compliment. The food boards say that the dishes in common are a bit better at IBA, but the original looks like a more charming space: it doesn’t double as a grocery, and they haven’t shoehorned in quite so many tables per square foot.
The service is better than you’d expect: they take reservations (good luck getting one right now), check coats, and seat incomplete parties. I walked in on a Wednesday evening at around 5:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before dinner service, and was seated at the bar as soon as the dining room opened. The following Monday at 6:00 on the dot was also just fine. Both times, less than an hour later, it was packed. It is all they can do to keep up, but I hesitate to blame them: I doubt even they thought they were building a three-star restaurant.
Pete Wells said that IBA reminded him of a mythical Italian village. To me, it felt like an obvious product of Manhattan, not that that’s surprising: most Manhattan restaurants do; funny how that works. A diner asked to order appetizers, and he’d see about primi or secondi later on. “I’m sorry,” the server replied, “but Chef prefers to receive your entire order at once.” Try and find an Italian restaurant in Umbria where they’d say that.
The wine list, which fits on one sheet of paper, is limited to about eight producers (not all of them Italian), with half-a-dozen wines from each of them. Prices by the glass are reasonable (disclosure: one was comped), but the bartenders don’t offer you a taste before pouring.
With its extensive in-house baking and curing program, IBA clearly has more going for it than your average neighborhood Italian place. For now, it is a destination restaurant, and as the owners have been around for nearly two decades, you can figure they’re here to stay. But just like Eataly, a space that is trying to be both a grocery and a restaurant is not ideal at either one.
Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria (53 Great Jones Street west of Bowery, NoHo)
Food: Enjoyable but uneven and over-priced modern Italian cuisine
Ambiance: A market and a restaurant combined, to the detriment of both
Why? Compelling at times, but too flawed and uneven to be a critic’s pick