A teeny tiny sign reads Bacco, the over-sized god of wine and agriculture. Yet strangely, the menu is embossed with One Eleven Yorkville, the name of a previous restaurant. Not exactly a great branding strategy if you're trying to stake a claim in this well-worn hood. BTW, Bacco's address is actually 113 Yorkville -- all the more confusing.
Even the menu puzzles after a quick perusal. Why would anyone dare to open a restaurant in these recessionary times only to mirror what so many others withi
n a radius of a few blocks are already doing so well? Places like CafÃ© Nervosa, Bellini's L'unita, Malena, Trattoria Fieramosca. Not to disrespect Bacco chef and owner Franco Agostino. After all, he's the same impossibly handsome and charming restaurateur who was involved with Il Posto Nuovo, once a wildly popular place for power lunches, and Rosedale's crazy busy Caffe Doria. So is it too much to ask for a bit more finesse from his kitchen?
Dining al fresco anywhere in Yorkville is pretty much guaranteed enjoyment, if not for the food, then for the unparalleled people watching - hours earlier Ellen Degeneres and wife Portia de Rossi strolled by. But being practically kitty corner to Mark McEwan's One, one would think that Agostino would have gone to greater lengths to posh up his patio. Sorry, uncomfortable aluminum and plastic chairs don't quite cut it.
And neither does the ultra-safe menu of Italian classics, unfortunately. Delicate beef carpaccio ($11) may be tender, but it's also tasteless despite a vigorous peppering and a drizzling of a dressing apparently copied from Venice's Hotel Cipriani. But, hey, it's nothing a good truffle oil can't cure. A calamari ($15) is nicely grilled, that is, if you can find it buried beneath a mound of mixed greens that spills over with every poke of the fork. Not attractive. Neither is a Caesar salad ($10) bereft of any garlic or anchovy zing and lettuce that is so finely chopped there's no need to chew. Rabbits would demand larger pieces.
Thankfully, slices of tried and true Ace Bakery baguette are served with a nicely grassy olive oil, great for dipping into a fish stew ($30) special brimming with seafood. Yet the humungous portion of mussels, clams, squid, whitefish, shrimp, cuttlefish and octopus, elegantly ladled tableside from a copper pot, is so insanely overcooked, you won't even notice the overly acidic tomato broth.
When the saltimbocca ($19) arrives, it too looks like a winner. But the chicken breast nicely wrapped in prosciutto and sage, served with risotto and rapini - doesn't fare much better. The ham adheres well and is slightly crisp, but the poultry is dry and tough to cut while the risotto's toothsome quality is long gone leaving one big mess of mush.
With all the restaurant ventures that Agostino has been involved in, why is he dishing out such mediocrity? Could it that his kitchen is under construction so, says Agostino, "we are just using a couple of burners" until the reno is complete. Not an excuse customers should have to pay for. Perhaps you will recall what Black Hoof churned out for a regularly packed house on a small electric stove not much bigger than an Easy-Bake Oven.
Look, any restaurant is entitled to have an off day, but splendid service can make or break the experience. And thanks to our server, who must be mentioned by name (thank you, Stephanie, fresh from New Brunswick), Bacco's average food was much easier to swallow. I'd give it a second chance if guaranteed she was my server, and if they started making their own pastas and desserts. Four months after opening, reigning king McEwan has little to worry about with upstart Bacco across the street.