Hungry Like The Wolf at Lupa

For those who missed high school, the history of Rome began when three brothers–Romulus, Remus, and Mario Batali–were raised by a wolf who promised one child the mightiest city in the world, the other a future restaurant empire and the last certain death. We know it’s not called Reme, so Remus died. Romulus built his empire and then Mario came to New York and opened the world’s best restaurant: Babbo. He also opened a few others: Otto, Lupa, Casa Mono and most recently Del Posto. I’ve been to Otto and Babbo but none of the others, so I used all my wiles to convince Diana to join me for lunch at Lupa on Tuesday. As you can see by this picture, she totally fell for it:

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I had a very specific reason for wanting to lunch at Lupa. On the plane back from Florida I read New York Magazine’s “101 Best Restaurants” issue. I don’t know how New York Magazine gets away with it: every few weeks they release another “Best Food In New York” issue cleverly spun in a new way to convince readers they MUST buy it. So there was the “Best Places to Shop for Food” issue, “The Best Cheap Eats” issue, “The Best Foods That Start with the Letter P” issue and now this: “Best Restaurants in New York.” I’ll confess, though, I fall for them every time. I just love reading about food and looking at pretty pictures and discovering new places to go, so I’m their target sucker. And each time it seems like I learn something new, so maybe I’m not such a sucker after all.

Lupa is ranked #49. Adam Platt, the ranker (how he compiled this thing, I have no idea—he must be exhausted) writes: “I know plenty of pasta hounds who consider this perpetually mobbed Batali/Bastianich trattoria to be the best restaurant in town. If you go on a weekday, at lunchtime, it just might be. That’s when the restaurant turns into an old-style neighborhood joint and you can enjoy your perfectly pitched, perfectly Roman bowl of spaghetti all carbonara without being elbowed, New York style, in the nose.”

As directed, Diana and I went at lunch. At first our prospects were dim: the place was packed. It was 1:30, peak lunch time. But the maitre’d wasn’t one of those “no way in hell” guys. He was more of a “just wait a few minutes, there’ll be seats at the bar” guys. And sure enough, a few minutes later two seats at the bar opened up. We hung our coats in the back and sat side by side. Soon we were presented with this fluffy, springy rosemary foccacia and a bowl of olive oil:

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(I accidentally used nightmode in that photo, so it shimmers more than it probably should.)

The foccacia was too good–I wanted to tear a deep hole in it, crawl inside and never leave. Instead, the bartender/waiter/greeter welcomed us to Lupa and asked us if we had any questions. We had plenty.

Diana and I had narrowed down our desires to sharing a salad and each ordering a pasta. But the pastas were confusing.

“Trippa Alla Romana,” I said. “That’s tripe?”

“Yes,” said the bartender. “Do you know what tripe is?”

“The intestines?” I guessed.

“No!” he laughed. “Not the intestines. The stomach lining!”

“Oh, like there’s a HUGE difference.”

“What’s bavette cacio & peppe?” asksed Diana.

“Ohhh,” said the bartender, “That’s my favorite one. It’s peppers and cheese and it’s really simple but it’s awesome.”

“Ok, I’ll have that,” said Diana.

I asked about the Cauliflower Farrotto.

“Do you know what farro is?”

Normally, I wouldn’t, but there was a glossary on the back of the menu.

“It’s a grain?”

“Yes,” he said. “So this is faro with pureed cauliflower and cheese mixed in.”

It sounded interesting so I said yes. We also ordered a salad. “Escarole, Walnuts, Red Onion

& Pecorino.”

“Awesome,” said the bartender. “Anything else?”

The wine list sat in front of us calling our name.

“This is the first meal we’ve eaten together in the new year,” I advised Diana. “It wouldn’t be a terrible choice to get wine would it?”

“No, it wouldn’t,” she agreed.

We each ordered the cheapest glass of white and the bartender didn’t judge us. I think he was proud of us for ordering any wine at all.

“He’s really nice,” I said.

“Ya,” said Diana. “Helpful.”

Soon the salad came.

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It doesn’t look like much in that picture–it actually looks like a McDonald’s or Wendy’s salad placed on a plate–but that’s where the comparison ends because the balance of ingredients and dressing was perfect.

“This is the perfect amount of dressing,” I said.

“Ya,” said Diana.

“Do you want more foccacia?” asked the bartender.

“Ummm,” I said. I was worried it would fill me up too much but it was too good to say no. He could see the consternation on my face.

“If it worries you so much, I’ll bring you one and you can share it,” he decided.

After the salad, my pasta came.

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Again, the picture doesn’t really do it justice. It kind of looks like oatmeal on acid. But the taste was comforting and mellow. “It’s really soothing,” said Diana, when she tried it.

Diana’s, on the other hand (not photographed), was really intense and peppery.

“It tastes a little like soap,” I said, cruelly.

“No it doesn’t,” she said deeply hurt.

But on second bite I took back my soap comment. “I think I was just tasting the pepper.”

At the halfway point, we switched plates and the spiciness of hers helped me finish my wine and the soothingness of mine made her suddenly willing to share deep personal secrets. “I used to be a man,” she told me.

“So did I,” I said.

The bartender stared with a raised eyebrow. “All done?”

He took the plates away and then FORCED dessert on us. Ok, it didn’t take much prodding. This is tartufo, how can you say no to tartufo?

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Chocolate on the outside, gelato on the inside. I rest my case.

If I had to evaluate Lupa, I wouldn’t make it #49 on the city’s best restaurants. First of all, lists like that are dumb–they’re there to sell magazines. Second, though, it’s just a fine, fun place to eat. The bartender was superfriendly–we had a nice side conversation about The Beatles–and the room had a warm, positive air. The food was very good, not extraordinary, just “hit the spot” good. Sometimes that’s what you want and Lupa fits the bill. I’ll be back to try the prosciutto (which my friend Colin, who used to work at Lupa, says is out of this world; Diana wasn’t in the mood). But I won’t run back the way I’d run back to Babbo, it’s not that kind of place. It’s actually much closer to Otto in that respect.

“That was good,” said Diana.

“I agree,” said I as we exited.

“It’s fun to feast in the middle of the day.”

“Yes,” I agreed. We both howled in satisfaction and made our way back to the world.

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