Entries in Maialino (4)


Should the Star Ratings Take Price Into Account?

At the bottom of every New York Times restaurant review is this blurb, essentially unchanged for many years:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

The paper never explains exactly how price is “taken into consideration.” Presumably, it means that a restaurant could receive a bonus star for being an exceptionally good value, or be docked a star for being too expensive.

I’d like to challenge that. Should the rating be price-sensitive? I can state at least four good reasons why not.

1. It is Open To Manipulation. In many notable cases, restaurants have raised their prices—sometimes substantially—just after they received a glowing New York Times review. For instance, when Frank Bruni awarded four stars to Eleven Madison Park, the prix fixe was $88; a year later, it is $125. Sam Sifton awarded four stars to Del Posto just a month ago; now, they have dropped their à la carte option, locking customers into a (minimum) $95 prix fixe.

I am not suggesting that either restaurant would lose the fourth star if the critic went back today, but these are hardly isolated examples. Country raised its prix fixe from $85 to $110 after Bruni gave it three stars. Fiamma went from $75 to $95 (later partly rolled back after Bruni called them on it). At Falai, a two-star restaurant, Bruni likewise saw a noticeable price increase (beyond the rate of inflation) when he returned two years later. In a blog post, he surveyed several other examples.

Now, I do realize that anything can change at a restaurant. But a talented chef is probably going to stay talented; an attractive dining room is probably going to remain that way. Prices, on the other hand, are merely the function of what a manager types into a word processor.

2. It Depends on Factors the Critic Can’t See. According to Joe Bastianich (partner with Mario Batali at Del Posto and many other restaurants), food is only 30 percent of the price—the rest being rent, labor, miscellany, and of course profit. The critic can see the food on the plate. He generally has no idea if the restauranteur got a sweet rent deal that enables him to undersell comparable restaurants. The restaurant might be saddled with union labor, which tacks on added costs. Restaurants that are part of larger empires might have the flexibility to run at a loss for a while, an option that independent outfits don’t have. Restaurants in hotels might be subsidized.

Lower rents, of course, are the reason why the dining scene has flourished in neighborhoods not formerly known for fine dining, like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Brooklyn. (The same was true twenty-five years ago in Tribeca, but it clearly isn’t now.) But those chefs don’t deserve bonus stars, just because they choose to locate in a low-rent district. Critics review restaurants, not rent deals.

3. It Makes Comparisons Much More Difficult. It is already hard enough to discern whether a pair of two-star restaurants are really comparable, when one four-tiered system needs to accommodate every genre and cuisine. But it only adds to the confusion when there is a mysterious price element in the mix. Is the two-star Torrisi Italian Specialties really punching at the same weight as fellow Italian two-stars Maialino and A Voce Columbus? Or is Torrisi getting a bonus for serving a bounty of pretty good food for just $50? It’s quite a bit less than you would pay at the other two places, but is it actually as good in the absolute sense?

4. Critics Should Evaluate Quality, Full Stop. Think about the other disciplines in which The Times employs critics: music, dance, film, theater, books, fashion, architecture. In no other, does the price of the product figure in the review. A critic gives an informed reaction to the product, independent of its economics. The Times doesn’t give better reviews to plays that open in cheaper off-Broadway houses; it reviews the production, not its price.

I am not suggesting that diners don’t, or shouldn’t, care what the meal costs. Of course we do. But value from the customer’s perspective depends on factors the critic can’t easily assess. For all of the above reasons, I think The Times ratings should be based on quality, full stop. The reviews, of course, would still show price ranges (as they do now). Diners can decide for themselves if the restaurant is “worth it.”


Review Recap: Maialino

Sam Sifton loves Maialino, and yesterday awarded precisely the two stars that owner Danny Meyer was hoping for. He thinks the food’s terrific, and in a few sentences really captures the Danny Meyer ethos:

It is warm and familiar, comfortable, a trattoria in an imaginary Rome where everyone comes from Missouri and wants you above all else to have a nice time. . . .

Here studious young men and women bend to the task of assembling cold antipasti and hot espressos alike, dressed in long bistro aprons and beanies: gastro-nerds studying at the University of Meyer.

Graduates work as waiters beyond them; doctoral students as managers. . . .

His [Meyer’s] restaurants have almost always done this in some way. They encourage their customers to appreciate what sits outside them, to rediscover Manhattan in the process. They direct attention to architecture, to parks, to the ideals of urban life. Mr. Meyer has changed the city with restaurants. Isn’t that something?

For those who are into betting, this week’s review didn’t present much of a challenge, as this was an obvious two-bagger. We and Eater both win $2 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $8.00   $12.00
Gain/Loss +$2.00   +$2.00
Total $10.00   $14.00
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 7–5

Life-to-date, New York Journal is 77–32 (71%).


Review Preview: Maialino

Tomorrow, Sam Sifton reviews Danny Meyer’s Roman Trattoria, Maialino. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows: Goose Egg: 500–1; One Star: 5–1; Two Stars: 2–1; Three Stars: 3–1; Four Stars: 1,000–1.

We were slightly less enthralled with Maialino than we expected for a Danny Meyer place, awarding just 1½ stars. However, Sifton’s system doesn’t have half-stars, and we cannot ignore the fact that most of the reviews to date have been positive.

We’ve no trouble at all agreeing with Eater that two stars is the likely outcome.



Among New York restauranteurs, it’s hard to name a more bankable success than Danny Meyer. From Union Square Cafe, to Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison Park, and The Modern, his restaurants have never failed.

Meyer’s knack for this business can’t be attributed to any one thing. He has a keen sense of “the moment,” he doesn’t do the same thing twice, he puts smart people in charge, and he focuses relentlessly on the customer. At a Meyer restaurant, you’ll never see a bartender who can’t transfer the tab to your table, or a host that refuses to seat incomplete parties. So it was at Meyer’s latest creation, Maialino, where I arrived thirty minutes too early, but they offered to seat me anyway, in a dining room booked solid for the evening.

That was so Danny Meyer.

Maialino, Meyer’s first Italian restaurant, replaces the failed Wakiya in the Gramercy Park Hotel. It’s a perfect location, with panoramic windows facing the park. It’s also perfect for Meyer, whose restaurant empire is all (except for The Modern) in walking distance of Madison Square, allowing him to keep close tabs on his growing brood.

The space is decked out like a modern trattoria, with a design by David Rockwell that seems instantly authentic. We would ditch the checked under-cloths at the tables, which look a bit too Little Italy.

Even Danny Meyer isn’t recession-proof. The antipasti are $9–14, the primi $13–17, the secondi mostly in the twenties. The menu also accommodates grazers, with a wide selection of salumi and formaggi, available individually or on platters serving anywhere from two to six. You’ll spend less here than in most of Meyer’s other restaurants, but we suspect that prices will be $10–20 more per person in a year or two.

The word Maialino refers to suckling pig, which recurs in several dishes. The pièce de resistance is a half-pig for $68. We were tempted to try it, but it feeds two to three people, and would have been wasted on us.


Zampina di Maialino, or Suckling Pig’s Foot ($14; above left), offered an ample bounty of smoky pink pork meat. It was served on a bed of heirloom beans that weren’t very good. Malfatti al Maialino, or suckling pig ragu with arugula and hand-torn pasta ($17; above right), was under-seasoned; the flavors barely registered.


Coda alla Vaccinara, or oxtails with carrots and celery ($23; above left), were tender from braising, but they were served in a dull sauce. Bistecca, or aged sirloin ($29; above right), was an enjoyable hunk of meat for a non-steakhouse, but the beans that accompanied the pig’s foot made an unwelcome re-appearance.

Service was excellent, as you expect in a Danny Meyer restaurant. Meyer himself was in the house, and stopped by most tables to say thanks, including ours. He said thank you again as we were leaving. Such is his reputation that we had much higher hopes for the food. But at a Danny Meyer restaurant, you can safely assume it will get better.

Maialino (2 Lexington Avenue at 21st Street, Gramercy Park)

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

Maialino on Urbanspoon