I hit Da Marcella (downtown branch on Houston St) with a couple friends after having read this very persuasive article about the owner and his sad story and his lifelong quest to serve, like, the PERFECT PASTA:
We arrived eight minutes late, and they hadn't held our reservation (six or seven tables were newly-seated). Nor did they seem sorry about it.
Some random dude was hanging around, waiting for his wife. They sat him at our table to wait before seating us. He plonked down, and wouldn't get up to let us take our seats. We had to press into him to sit down. And as we talked amongst ourselves, he treated our conversation like sports on TV, swiveling his head to listen to each speaker. The restaurant did nothing. There's a very strong not-giving-a-crap sentiment.
Wine was served at about 85 degrees. I seriously thought my esophagus was burning. We poured in ice and made slurpees.
Let me get to the gist. The reason these guys can afford to serve pasta for $10-15 on Manhattan real estate is that they're freezing all the sauces ahead. Way ahead. Nothing (we had two different pastas plus osso bucco plus meatball appetizer) had the slightest bit of flavor, and I say that literally. It was remarkable; I've never before encountered such flavorless food. All you can taste is salt and black pepper.
The cheese which had been grated over my pasta had melted into the general uber-blandness and was lost. But at one point, I struck upon an errant unmelted parmesan shard, and it was like angels singing. FLAVOR! I almost swooned. I'm not sure I've ever appreciated parmesan as fully as when it appeared through clouds of salt and black pepper at Da Marcella.
This sounds like the world's worst pan, but it's actually not. Aside from the crunchy rice beneath the osso bucco, the insanely stale and cheap bread, and Hell's own wine cellar, very little was actively bad. Just an utter failure to be good in any way. Even the dipping olive oil was admirably non-rancid - though disappointingly mediocre and poorly-chosen.
We were grievously disappointed, but a friend remarked that, given the generally low standards and not-giving-a-crap undercurrent, a slew of things had NOT gone wrong, and that was a miracle; presumably that's where the owner's strivings come into the equation. Nothing (aside from the afore-mentioned grievances) had actively rubbed us the wrong way - there were no off-flavors - so we found ourselves (reluctantly) eating more of the food than we really wanted to. It seemed almost fiendishly designed to never quite totally piss you off, so one could eat an entire plate with only a distant feeling of something being "off". If I'd stood up and hollered "People! Taste your food! It ought to have flavor beyond salt and pepper!", they'd have all experienced a sudden epiphany....but then kept on reluctantly eating, just as we had, only with the spell broken and a determination to never return.
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