A good Italian restaurant cannot hide from the things which make it truly exceptional: excellent service and even better ingredients. There are no gimmicks or concepts that can take away from an Italian meal’s most essential elements. Il Mulino is the real deal. Old school and food-focused, I think it’s the best Italian meal you’ll find in New York City, and I have a feeling it’s been that way for quite some time now.
It all started what was probably ten years ago, when my mother raved about her latest venture into the city to eat at a restaurant in the village called Il Mulino. You know how mothers have that wonderful ability to retell the same story repeatedly as though it’s new information each and every time? I’ve heard about Il Mulino once or twice since then.
Il Mulino quickly became my mom’s favorite restaurant, and so she made a lunch reservation for us while I’m home from Paris this month. It just so happens to be restaurant week, and so the opportunity was perfect, as this is normally quite the pricey culinary experience.
Upon entering, there’s a great energy in the restaurant, despite the decor seeming to have remained untouched for a at least a couple of decades. But something about it, perhaps the bright lighting and white tablecloths, instantly took me back to my extra-Italian childhood. Something about Italian-American culture and the 90’s just seem to go hand in hand.
We were seated immediately, and before I could even pull my chair in there was a frenzy of tuxedos and arms flying around our table. I felt exactly like a cat or dog looking around frantically when their owner shines a laser pointer all over a wall. A large block of parmesan cheese was being chipped away on my left. Across from me was salami slices and a fragrant crispy zucchini being placed down on the table. Fluffy fresh-baked bread appeared. Another man scooped fresh bruschetta and chilled mussels onto our plates. And then, leaving as quickly as they had arrived, we were left with a table full of food before we even saw a menu.
Now that is my idea of dining. My mother explained that due to it being restaurant, I was experiencing a highly abbreviated version of their usual routine, and that normally the lights are dimmed, and the portions are much larger. The menu is focused on the Abruzzo region, though you’ll be sure to find many classic Italian dishes on both the regular menu and the restaurant week menu. Restaurant week allots for one appetizer, one entree, and one dessert. We chose a fresh pappardelle with tomato sauce (you’ve got to try the sauce, it’s always the true test), and a calamari and white bean salad. Both were perfectly executed. For entrees, a dredged and breaded seabass with clams, mussels and a shrimp, and a porcini ravioli in a truffle cream sauce. You have not had a true porcini ravioli until you’ve had this one. Excellent flourless chocolate cakes and poached pears with zabaione (a light, creamy and airy Italian dessert custard) for dessert, we left feeling spoiled and satisfied. The two very large glasses each of rich house red certainly helped as well.
Overall, it’s an expensive but worth-it experience, but if you can get in for restaurant week for a sneak preview, I think there are few better uses for $30. Wine will run about $16 per glass but it’s worth it because the quality is high and the pours are generous. Paired with excellent service by true Italians, it will be hard to forget you’re just in the middle of Manhattan and not off in the hills of Abruzzo. A sure new favorite. (Excerpts from regular menu below.)
Where: 86 W 3rd St (between Sullivan and Thompson) New York, NY 10012. Subway: West 4th (ABCDEFM). Open: M-F, lunch and dinner, Sat-Sun dinner only. | How Much: Restaurant week $25-35 per person, wine about $16 per glass. Normal menu $150+ including drinks. Cards okay.