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“Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria”

  Occasion: Cuisine: Area: Cost: Rating:
  Night Out Italian East Village Moderate Off the Charts

Rachael Ray was sitting behind us. I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. Then someone mentioned seeing Martha Stewart. Both of them in one restaurant? Would there be a catfight? No matter. Steven, Katy and I could have cared less. Our backs were to the buzzing dining room, filled to capacity with gloriously happy, well-fed people lucky enough to be eating at il buco alimentari & vineria, the second restaurant from Donna Lennard and friends, the folks behind Bond Street’s il buco.

We were facing the cooks for an evening of full frontal eating at the three coveted kitchen counter seats you’ll find at the rear of this bustling artisan grocery and communal restaurant. I counted the cooks: seven men and one woman, all in orange cycling caps like a Tour de France team that’s stopped off the road for a little cooking experiment between heats under chef-captain Justin Smillie. A tall, broad, all-American sort who looks like he might be a good defensive lineman, Smillie commands his open kitchen with a big smile and a strong baritone: Where’s my octopus? Where’s my artichoke? Where’s my quail! Waiting! Waiting!” It’s thrilling to watch.

To sit here on this enviable perch, in arms’ reach of this charming cavalry of cooks, is a benefit for several reasons. First, you will eat more than you fair share; the cooks will toss food at you— flights of cured meats, plates of juicy quail, bowls of beautiful pasta—sort of like a zookeeper might throw fresh meat to lions: with that much frequency and enthusiasm. If I felt like fish about to be baited, it was a price worth paying for such a miraculous, wondrous, goose-bumpy experience. This is a meal that will have you breathless after each bite, wondering how you actually ate anywhere else beforehand and whether you will eat anywhere else afterward. So what if Rachael Ray is sitting behind you? It’s really of no consequence.

Now, as for what to eat, there’s not a dud on this menu of Italian dishes. Do you love hot and crispy fried artichokes, tart with lemon, grassy with herbs? I know I do. Do you crave thick arms of grilled octopus, bathed in fragrant olive oil, rendered so tender they might as well be a love song, set over a salad of baby chickpeas and pickled currants? That, too. Or a plate of Vermont quail, grilled and served with a clever combination of persimmon, yogurt, and fantas ... [more, click below]

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