I’m still not sure if Andrew Carmellini truly wanted to be the king of middlebrow restaurants, or if he just stumbled on them by accident.
That’s not meant as an insult, though I’m sure it sounds like one. Carmellini’s restaurants are places where we could eat well every day, which is a good thing, because we have to eat every day. He has nailed the genre.
For now, he apparently has no appetite for destintion dining, and he used to be very good at that too. I wonder if he misses it?
Anyhow, welcome to Bar Primi, which isn’t a bar (though it’ll russle up a terrific cocktail if you ask for one). It’s named for the middle course of a traditional Italian meal, the primi. It’s as if a traditional Italian restaurant had lopped a page off the menu: it ends with the pastas.
Ryan Sutton, Eater’s restaurant critic, apparently had no sense of irony, when he wrote:
Leave it to Carmellini, Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom, the team behind Locanda Verde, Lafayette and The Dutch, to give New York what it wants, which in this case is a late night pasta parlor where you and a buddy can eat and drink well for about $120. Bar Primi is essentially doing for Carmellini & Co. what Parm is doing for the Torrisi boys: it provides an entry-level Italian experience that can still excite fans of the group’s more expensive brands.
It’s not a crazy idea. Americans have an indistinct relationship with the pasta course: it can serve as an appetizer, or it can be a meal in itself. Very few, in my experience, actually order it as a middle course, between an appetizer and an entrée: it’s just too much food. Still, the menu at Bar Primi is a bit disorienting. It feels like two-thirds of a restaurant, and despite Sutton’s protestations, not exactly cheap.
For the sops who must have secondi, there’s a rotating line-up of them—one per day—and sometimes an extra announced special. Or you can have roast beef, Italian peppers, provalone and arugula on a hamburger bun, which is dubbed “the sandwich,” as the restaurant serves no other. We didn’t try it, but we saw a specimen at another table: it looked terrific.
The bulk of the menu consists of little snacks, or piccolini ($9–14), antipasti ($14–17), and two groups of pastas, traditional and seasonal ($14–22). That sandwich is $16, and the few secondi offered are $23–33.
I remembered that Carmellini is a master of crostini, although the version here, with “truffled” mushrooms (above left) is not exactly cheap, at $10. (A normal portion comes with two; we ordered an extra piece.) The Antipasto Salad ($15; above right) is not very remarkable, but fine for what it is.
A Quinoa salad ($12; above left) was three dollars cheaper and a lot more interesting. Branzino ($28; above right) was an announced special, and demonstrates that although the restaurant offers few main courses, it does very well by the ones it has.
Both pastas were excellent, a Spaghetti with Clams ($19; above left) from the “traditional” half of the menu, a Rigatoni ($17; above right) from the “seasonal” section, served with Savoy cabbage, house-made pancetta, and piave cheese.
For dessert, we shared a Taramisu ($9; right), which was all you could ask it to be.
The wine list is on the flip side of the menu, with several dozen bottles fairly priced in relation to the menu, from $40 up to the low three digits. The 2011 Vietti Perbacco was a shade over-priced at $70 (around 2½ times retail), but it complemented the food nicely.
Bar Primi occupies the spacious corner lot on the Bowery, where Taavo Somer failed with Peels, a likable place that never caught on. He may be lousy at running restaurants, but Somer has a keen eye for interior decorating. He stuck around to design Bar Primi and got it exactly right, as the photo at the top of this page shows.
The service was excellent, for the most part. The host seated our incomplete party an hour before our reservation time. (They only started taking reservations a few weeks ago.) The staff offered sample pours of wines by the glass. The server gave reasonable ordering advice, and checked back regularly. Plates were bused promptly, and silverware replaced for each course. But I’d like to see a real bread course (not just bread sticks), and for the price of dinner here, you’d think they could spring for cloth napkins, rather than paper.
Carmellini and crew are not letting the grass grow under their feet. Opened eight months ago, Bar Primi is not even their newest restaurant. That would be Little Park in TriBeCa, which is currently in its review cycle. It’s a testament to their ability that Bar Primi is still doing fine work without their daily attention.
Overall, Bar Primi is a wonderful restaurant, if you don’t mind that the traditional main course is practically non-existent.
Bar Primi (235 Bowery at Bond Street, NoHo)
Food: Italian, mostly antipasti and pastas
Service: Good for such a casual place
Ambiance: Pitch perfect