A restaurant like Civetta would not normally attract much notice, but for its pedigree. It has shared ownership with the Sfoglia team, and many hoped—expected—that the earlier restaurant’s success on the Upper East Side would be transferred downtown.
I must admit that I never bought into the Sfoglia hype. On my one visit, it seemed utterly unremarkable—the kind of place that I would consider only if I were in the neighborhood, assuming it wasn’t so crowded and cramped.
At Civetta, even Sfoglia’s modest ambitions are not duplicated. Sfoglia, at least, comes across as an earnest mom and pop place. Civetta, which means Owl in Italian, is just marginally better than the mine run of Little Italy restaurants on nearby Mulberry Street.
The space is on two levels. The ground floor derives its charm from a spectacular carved wood bar with a solid marble counter, which hails from an earlier era. The staff could not tell me its history, except that it was there before; that much I had figured out on my own. The rest of the room, with its wooden tables and knick-knacks on the wall, is like many other places you’ve seen.
The basement looks like it’s a new build-out. It’s designed to appeal to the late-night hipster set, with a crass décor having nothing whatsovever to do with the ground floor. We have no idea if it’s succeeding. By the time that crowd would have arrived, we were already back home. The dining room was close to full at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday evening. We suspected that the San Gennaro Festival had something to do with it.
The bread service (above left), replicated from Sfoglia if memory serves us right, was just fine. They even provided olive oil for dipping, after we asked for it.
The strength of the menu is two dozen antipasti ($8–18). It appears the pasta prices have moderated a bit after early reviewers complained, but the secondi all hover around the $30 mark. We were skeptical, so took a pass on them, ordering just antipasti and pastas.
The antipasti were stronger: Lamb Polpettini, or meatballs ($12; above left); Arancini ($12; above right), stuffed with fontina and sausage.
Seafood Risotto ($24; above left) was generic. The shrimp tasted like they came out of the freezer. Rigatoni Bolognese ($22; above right) was lukewarm and had the consistency of shoe leather.
With many compelling dining options within half-a-dozen blocks’ radius, we see no particular reason to recommend Civetta. If you go, stick with the antipasti.
Civetta (98 Kenmare Street between Mulberry Street & Cleveland Place, NoLIta)