Counting Sheep: La Pecora Bianca
I was already sorta falling in love with La Pecora Bianca. I liked the Little Bo Peep theme – the clean white nursery look with its apple green painted chairs and summery tiles, the cute white sheep on the coaster under my Negroni. My usual cocktail. The Classico. My choice here from a veritable Baskin Robbins of Negroni flavors. I was touched to see that the determination to be locavore trumped the tendency to seem Italian, so it’s Toby’s Estate Italian Roast from Brooklyn at the espresso aka cocktail bar and not Lavazza. Though that doesn’t explain why the fish of the day is Arctic Char.
Even my friend the super snob decorator agrees, “It’s very pretty.” His spritz — Il Maestro — is pretty too, blushing in a tall wine goblet, looking so bubbly pastel and innocent you’d never suspect it mixes aperol, limoncello, prosecco and grappa in with the cucumber and mint.
My designer pal wonders how this summery, white-washed, glass-walled pergola, with its terra cotta vessels and shelved pickle jars like jewels, will hold up in February blizzards, but it has already jollied me out of my annoyance at being greeted from the podium by my least favorite welcome: “We’ll seat you when the rest of your party arrives.” (Confession: I persuade them to seat me anyway.)
The house sends tissue-thin slices of ham on a wooden palette, and a plate of heirloom tomatoes. They are beautifully striped but soft, a little watery, not smartly tangy, proving not all heirlooms are created equal.
Wading through the menu garden, we agree to cover the table with mostly vegetable antipasti to share. The Verdure Verdi is virtue on a plate: sugar snaps, snow and green peas, favas, asparagus and pecorino. Maybe a tad too much salt. One of my companions thinks the charred peaches with sheep’s milk ricotta and candied lime zest should be dessert.
But a classic caponata is fine and golden plums stand out in the estiva salad with limas, cucumber, zebra tomatoes and bitter-melon seeds in a honey citronette. Unsurprisingly, it’s the opulent crostino – spicy ‘nduja from Calabria mushed with stracciatella — that’s the favorite.
We could use some bread for the extra ricotta, I decide. “Do you serve bread?” I ask our waitress.
“It depends,” she responds as if uncertain, returning after awhile with thick, crusty slices of country bread. Marvelous bread, just cut. I run out of ricotta, but can’t stop eating it.
We’re all hooked by the sales pitch for house made pastas “from local and organic flours, gluten free.” They seem disciplined, very new age, for unruly gourmands like us. Spelt, einkorn, emmer, soft semolina – it’s a brave new enticement. Of the four primi we share, the einkorn gramigna with house-made pork sausage. garlic, chili flakes and broccolini is the best, though emmer maccheroni with hen of the woods mushroom and favas is good too.
If only the sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli with lobster and favas weren’t so lumpen and the risotto weren’t a soupy pesto smudge. But that leaves room to relish our single “secondi” – roasted chicken with corn, hen of the woods and pickled Serrano chili – a tasty bird, juicy, dressed for the season.
The waitress seems apologetic about only two choices for dessert, reminding me how newly hatched this place is, but now at 9 pm already full up and vibrating with a youngish crowd. Berries, pistachios and Vin Santo zabaione decorate the dark chocolate mousse. I’m not expecting to like sheep’s milk panna cotta – “It’s made with goat butter,” our server warns. But it’s that small ration of custard in a squat glass jar with bits of lemon verbena and candied lavender that I love.
Next morning, I thought maybe I’d write a first impression for BITE. I’d try to capture the charm and virtuous tics. The fire of chef Simone Bonelli, who grew up in Modena and worked with Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana. The mix of food, good, not so good and sometimes surprisingly daring. But then a few nights later, here I am again. Neophiliac friends wanting to check it out, insist. They are sheepishly waiting for the rest of their party to arrive. That would be me, five minutes late.
I hadn’t recognized the man at the reception desk, Mark Barak, an owner. We’d met at the very pretty Claudette on Fifth Avenue, and he recognizes me here. We have our choice of tables, settling in the farthest corner near the kitchen in hopes of finding a pocket of comparative quiet. I like the summery country look all over again from my new perspective. And again, the spicy ‘nduja crostino cut into four small bites, is wonderful.
This time the house sends shot glasses of gazpacho – a thick sludge of tomato, beet, red pepper, watermelon and strawberry. I’d never heard of agretti before, so decide we shall try it – tossed into a salad with wild spinach, garlic, anchovies and breadcrumbs. A request for bread brings thin slices of whole grain, nothing like the previous evening’s supernal loaf. “We buy it from Breads,” the waiter offers.
My friends agree I should order anything I haven’t tasted yet. That means wide ribbons of green and yellow summer squash with marcona almonds and pecorino, looking good, very clean, alongside the salty agretti. Primitive chunks of raw hamachi sit in a citrus sea as the crudo of the day.
Beef and pork Bolognese is fine on red fife tagliatelle. But the spelt strozzapreti might benefit with something more than just a dousing of ‘nduja arrabbiata. There are only four secondi, all garnished and gently priced, $24 to $26 — a fish of the day, scallops, chicken and “the beef cut of the day.” That’s an intriguing way to put it. Today’s cut is just predictable old hanger steak with cilantro chimichurri.
The seared scallops with guanciale and chopped summer squash are not “a little less cooked” as requested, but they quickly disappear anyway. The waiter hears us complaining about too much salt on the hanger steak -“It tastes like an accident,” one of us suggests.
He takes it away and off the bill as well. He warns us the panna cotta is made with pork bone gelatin.
“Why do you think he told us that?” my friend Irina asks, imagining some racial profiling.
It’s doesn’t matter. Pork bone gelatin or goat butter – the panna cotta in its stubby glass jar is still delicious. Will we be back? I don’t think so. La Pecora Bianco will be more a must for our town’s several thousand fickle would-be restaurant critics who have to try whatever’s new. Maybe it will prove a gift to the neighborhood that already has NoMad and The Breslin and is swiftly gentrifying. That’s the new Rizzoli bookstore next door.
1133 Broadway SW corner of 26th Street. 212 498 9696. From 5 pm, seven days a week. Lunch coming soon.