The review did not bode well. "Consistently inconsistent" are not words I like to hear regarding the restaurant where I am about to eat dinner, a restaurant where someone (not me) is about to spend some forty dollars, or more, per person. A restaurant that is deafeningly loud, rather louder than a momentarily unsupervised kindergarten class and slightly less loud than a club where a grungily unknown garage band is trying to capture your attention by screaming and strumming recklessly away. There are high ceilings and minimalist (meaning uncomfortable) chairs and somewhat camp chandeliers that, while elaborate with dangly bits and twisty arms, have the soft glow of plastic rather than the cold glitter of crystal. Candles sputter around the room, held aloft by aluminum candlesticks; lurid oil paintings of wine casks leer from their gilded frames. Did I mention that it was loud?
Despite the ominous review, Barolo, located on the ground floor of some yuppie apartment building, is crammed full of people. The bar is three-deep with waiting diners; every table is occupied, and it is already past 7 pm. We are slightly shielded from the rest of the long, L-shaped dining room, in a nook hung with diaphanous curtains and floor-to-ceiling open shelves of wine, but not shielded from the unceasing din. Carafes of ice water stand on the table, faintly flavored with slices of cucumber and lemon. The bread reminds me of Italy, with a pale crust that is thick and crunchy, without the golden crispness of a French baguette, and with a finer crumb, and instead of sweet butter or luscious pools of green-gold olive oil, there is a bowl of caponata, salty and with that faintly bitter tang of black olives.
The appetizers arrive, a composed salad of grilled eggplant, a stack of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. My father is disappointed with his calamari, with is sweet and garlicky and slightly chewy and not particularly exciting. The osso buco which follows is not any better. There is not even any gremolata, which I find strange. And yet my fettucine is wonderful, a tangle of hand-cut noodles, tossed with tender slices of rabbit and porcini mushrooms and herbs and lightly dusted with a sneeze of finely grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano. There is the sweetness of carrots and celery, and the piny fragrance of rosemary. The herbs give it the taste of twilight in the woods, of wind-swept fields; it has the taste of something wild, without being gamy, which is what I love about rabbit meat.
The less said about my not-very-soufflé cold chocolate soufflé, the better. The review was right; it was a consistently inconsistent meal. There were a few bright spots - my rabbit fettucine, A.'s pasta with lamb ragú, my mother's risotto, which was perfectly al dente - and a few low points, or at least, mediocre ones - the appetizers, the osso buco, the perfectly adequate but not particularly stunning desserts. It is a good enough dinner, made good by one great dish, by the riotous company, and by the conversation that crosses continents and encompasses meals past and present, restaurants that we have been going to for twenty years and that we mean to try in the future, of the embonpoint of opera singers and how it destroys the poetic illusion of the music, of the state of healthcare in America, and back again to the one thing we always talk about at the table - food.