For more than a decade, Little Italy's money spot for single guys was a cozy corner eatery called Valerio's. Hailed as one of the most romantic hideaways in town, the dimly lit trattoria worked magic on one's date, serving as a form of courtship catnip. Sure, the experience left a man's wallet a little worse for wear, but the return on investment always seemed to outweigh the cost.
A couple of months ago, Valerio's relocated to the old Battuto space up the street. On paper, the move seemed like a no-brainer: It provided chef and owner Valerio Iorio with more seats, improved visibility and a roomier kitchen. In reality, the move may have just killed the mood.
Relocations and duplications often prove ill-fated. Iorio himself learned that lesson when he was forced to shutter his Solon outpost after less than two years. Granted, that particular location burns through restaurants like Keith Richards burns through Marlboros, but the point is still taken.
New surroundings force us to take a fresh look at old friends. What for years may have come across as a minor blemish emerges under the harsh lights of scrutiny as a major flaw. One too many of those flaws and pretty soon your date is texting backup boys on her Blackberry.
I recall how tickled a dinner date was when the suave waiter recited the night's specials, nonchalantly insinuating that, at Valerio's, menus are déclassé. Nowadays, my wife grumbles, "Why can't they just print all those out? Do they expect to us to ask the price for each and every one?" No, my dear, that's precisely the point.
Italian restaurants are lauded for their bread service. Little else kickstarts a meal like warm, crusty bread and a plate of fruity olive oil. At Valerio's, diners make do with pale slices bundled in paper towels with still-frozen butter packets — this at a place that charges $31 for osso buco. As Seth Meyers would say: Really?
Still, the bread serves its purpose when a deep terrine of mussels ($11.95) arrives. Sufficiently succulent and submerged in a garlicky tomato broth, the mussels do wonders to elevate our mood. Sadly, the joy is short-lived. Prosciutto-wrapped melon ($11.95) works so well on account of the seductive interplay between sweet and salty. Drape a few slices of too-thick prosciutto over crunchy, unripe cantaloupe, and the outcome is anything but sexy.
Proving much more successful is a refreshingly straightforward dish of smoked salmon carpaccio ($11.95). Thin leaves of salmon top a mixed green salad, receiving little more than capers, lemon juice and olive oil by way of adornment.
Iorio has always worked wonders with veal, and his version of saltimbocca ($20.95) picks up right where he left off. Thin slices of quality veal are wrapped with prosciutto, crowned with a judicious amount of cheese and bathed in a lively white wine sauce. All that's missing is the sage. The veal is joined by grilled asparagus and run-of-the-mill roasted potatoes.
Bad timing tarnishes an otherwise dreamy dish of calamari risotto ($19.95). Had the rice stayed on the stove for a few moments longer, it would have moved past the crunchy stage and sailed straight into creamy land. Instead, we focus our advances on the remarkably tender squid and the buttery broth.
Valerio's doesn't offer half orders of pasta. If it did, diners would not be compelled to choose between an entrée and a $16 plate of spaghetti, as we were one night at the bar. So, instead of a richer meal and a larger tab, my wife and I snuggled up to a very average plate of penne with meat sauce ($15.95). Despite sitting directly in front of the bartender, we had to request, at four separate times, water, silverware, side plates and cheese for the pasta.
For better or for worse, the Battuto space got a bit of a makeover. A new 10-seat bar was constructed in the front of the restaurant, just beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass façade. While bar seats are always nice to have, the view now offered to passersby has changed from diners eating to barflies drinking. I think the former does more to attract business than the latter.
When I spoke to Iorio six months ago about the impending move, he trumpeted the fact that he would be returning to the kitchen after a six-year absence. That may be true on some nights, but on one visit, we observed him stroll in halfway through dinner service. During another, we never saw him at all.
Dear Iorio: Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, come back to work. We need our wingman.