If a friend says to me, "Meet me in the Meatpacking," my knee-jerk reaction an overstated eye-roll, mainly at the thought of all the money I'll waste on an overpriced meal.
But I've found a new spot—a diamond amongst da clubs, if you will—a quaint little gem amidst restaurants that are all style and no substance.
Mulino a Vino, which opened relatively quietly a few weeks ago, is the first U.S. restaurant from Michelin-starred Italian chef Davide Scabin. Its unassuming atmosphere, especially given its surroundings, is one of its best qualities: The cozy subterranean spot is located down a flight of stairs, and its brick-lined dining room has little more than 10 tables.
A chef plating the vitello tonnato; the finished product
Owner Paolo Meregalli spared no expense on the details: The Italian tiles in the bar were hand-painted and specially made. Every bottle of wine (of which there are 50 or so available by the bottle and the glass—the restaurant is first and foremost a wine bar) is rolled out on a special cart before being individually aerated and served.
Scabin is known for molecular cuisine at his Rivoli, Italy, restaurant, Combal.Zero. While you won't find any crazy foams or unnecessary gelées at Mulino, his cooking offers subtle surprises. Each dish is available in three sizes ($18, $32 and $45): The vitello tonnato is a beautifully plated wonder, with rosy, salt-dusted pink slices of Piedmont beef tenderloin wrapped around tuna sauce that's creamier and thicker than the more traditional versions I've tried. A puffy doughnut made from pasta dough is filled with salty, savory cacio e pepe cream and sprinkled with wisps of Parmesan cheese.
Owner Paolo Meregalli
The Mulino's Polpetta, a tennis ball-sized meatball which in flavor and texture is reminiscent of a porky sausage patty, gets a dollop of condensed amatriciana sauce, a vibrant paste of tomato-y and pancetta-y goodness. And even the simplest looking dish, a beautifully tender tentacle of roast octopus, dazzles with burst cherry tomatoes and a creamy, perfectly cooked slab of potato.
Meregalli is an observant and thoughtful host, stopping by frequently to check in. When he noticed that I gave my friend a gift for her upcoming wedding, he rolled over the wine cart and poured us two complimentary glasses of Brachetto ($13) to accompany our slice of creamy peanut butter cheesecake ($12), the chef's playful dessert-menu nod to New York City.