If you live on the south side of Greenwich Village, you probably already know about Lupa. It’s a four-way collaboration involving the man with the orange Crocs and Mark Ladner, the man at the helm of the kitchen. Being that Lupa Osteria Romana has been firing dishes since 1991, it’s apparent that New Yorker’s have played a critical role in bastardizing the historical meaning of the reference, “osteria.”
Where traditionally, osterie were essentially Italian bars where food was uncommon and menus were unheard of, osterie today are seen to literally mean anything from lunch café to white table cloth dining. Traditionally, trattorie were more likely to serve food, issue small menus and service the casual eating demands of the local merchant, middle-class type. At ristoranti, menus changed less often, food was more expensive and dining was a long drawn-out affair.
The contemporary “osteria” faces many lexical difficulties. Lupa Osteria Romana, for instance, is definitely not a bar, though it has one and it remains a very busy place all evening long; it serves food and has a full blown menu, appealing otherwise ambulating eyes; prices are not dressed-down, though they seem completely reasonable. If anything, this place should be called a trattoria or a ristorante, not an osteria, but as wealth has grown, so has our demand for choices.
In New York, for example, we want an excellent wine list (enoteca), we want to be able to sit at a bar (osteria), we want to feel local and intimate (trattoria) but we want to decide on beef, pork, poultry, game, lamb, fish, shellfish, octopus, snails, veal, mushrooms, pasta, farro after we arrive (ristorante). The lines between these various types of eateries have been blurred by wealthy gente moderna who demand having all of the niche specialties of the past available in one location at one time that one may operate by the luxury of whim.
In an age where every osteria serves food and most ristorani have a bar, it’s apparent that Ladner et al meant something else when they chose “osteria.” It’s my hunch that they were attempting to brand the space as a most casual and unpretentious Italian eatery so that superb food could be found more enigmatic, standing out against a great recess of “osteria,” where trace connotations of simplicity and local familiarity are still invoked, albeit scarcely.
The overcast quality of the dining room helped. Every thin, fluted lowball glass flashed, a miniature silo of rosé light as people at the bar scurried their arms around adjacent shoulders. The feral Remus and Romulus suckle shewolf latte above in a dominating orange epigraph as diners dance their forchette around plates of the popular Roman cibi of tripe, bucatini, saltimbocca, gnocchi, artichoke, with Pecorino Romano abound.
It’s fall, and so the flour dusted and fried sweetbreads were skewered with apple two-ways and water melon radish, a periwinkle’s worth of baby watercress leaves. With something appley on the bottom of the plate, the flavors seemed a bit trite but the sweetbreads were so delicious that not any of the four glandules saw the inside of the kitchen but once. There was none of that vascular tissue, just custard and apples.
A smart coupling arrived in the form of raw escarole and walnut salad with shaved mezzalune of red onion and Pecorino Romano, where the chosen lettuce yields in a relatively similar way as the walnuts, making for fatty mouth feel, fun even for the raw-escarole initiated.
Romans love their ancient primi of pasta and gnocchi dishes, and Lupa’s gnocchi made with polenta instead of potato, a common variation in Roma, was stunning. On the plate, glistening in a surprisingly light lemon-butter sauce, bloomed a fireworks display of mushrooms. Hen of the woods spangled in the candle light above one and a’half inch disks of soft polenta gnocchi. Then there was that ubiquitous modicum of baby watercress sitting atop it all.
The roasted half lobster, freckled with breadcrumbs, steeping in stock and butter within its shell, had a hearth-like complexity of mild smokiness, echoed by the smoked Serrano pepper. Grapefruit segments and baby watercress popped amid the butter and mild smoke and where there might have been a dampening starch, sections of toothy parsnip varying in carmelization kept things rather light and crustacean-centric.
A side of roasted cauliflower with capers the size of caper berries was a savory addition, if a bit heavy on the salt-cured blooms. I’ve learned that tartufo is not really my thing. I’m generally not the type who orders ice cream, gelato, sorbet just because it’s there, and I normally prefer an after dinner drink no matter what dolce there are listed. This night was different. I still had some good red wine in my glass.
Lupa’s almost semifreddo tartufo, coated in creamy ganache and rising above a sauce of dark chocolate and toasted hazelnuts is classic yet emphatic. If it weren’t Italian enough, a maraschino cherry is pitted in the center. The earthy citrusness of cardamom was a clever assuager of sweetness in the peach succo and butter sauce that draped over the shards of lightly golden almonds, mascarpone and poached stone fruit del giorno, peach.
People who read “Osteria” and expect to find an Italian bar, stripped of all that silly food business shouldn’t go to Lupa Osteria Romana or any other osteria in NYC. Really, such ideas seem pre-US Industrial Revolution. Through the decades, marginal deviations from historical tradition have lit these Italian words with new light. Though the words osteria, enoteca, trattoria, ristorante and still other types, seem to have lost their distinction as descriptive forms, it might be that their meanings are more nuanced, more indicative of a mood or atmosphere being projected by their naming artists than of a strict set of rules for production.
Lupa has been around for a bit now, and can be assumed a marked agent of conditioning in this regard. And people won’t stop coming back. At Lupa Osteria Romana, the staff is of a high service caliber and the food is not soon forgettable. In the end, if you can make your customers happy on a consistent basis, everything else is sweetbread, mate.