Two of my best mates took me out for my birthday to il Mulino a few weeks back. Let's call them Larry and Mr. Relentless. Not their real names. Larry is an art dealer who traffics multimillion dollar modern masterpieces but perhaps contrary to stereotype spends all of his lucre on guns, compounds in the woods and a variety of all terrain vehicles customized to withstand an assault on Fallujah. He grew up in Texas and despite forays into the subcultures of skateboarding, punk rock and heavy metal, not to mention a career in fine art, he is pretty much a red blooded/state/neck (take your pick, or combine) American carnivore masquerading in metrosexual clothing. He organizes a yearly pilgrimage to Texas Hill Country to eat barbecue that both Mr. Relentless and I attend. Eating at eight different barbecues a day for days on end is good practice for eating at il Mulino.
Mr. Relentless has a similarly effete career as a real estate broker. While Larry was raised in the wilds of Texas Mr. Relentless grew up in the New Jersey suburbs surrounding NYC and spent his adolescence slumming it on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the hardcore punk music scene eventually blagging a job that earns him a very decent salary. While Larry is the rugged, fit, outdoors type Mr. Relentless practically defines a stereotypical Texans view of a stereotypical New Yorker - loud, obnoxious, soft around the middle. Mr. Relentless is incredibly well connected, he knows all sorts of interesting people from all sorts of interesting places. But his crowning achievement is marrying a woman than can both put up with him and cook better than most chefs.
Being the good friends that they are Larry and Mr. Relentless never forget my birthday and always take me out somewhere special. I think they were both a little surprised that I chose il Mulino, rather than something more avant garde or overtly carnivorous. But I wanted something old school. and it being my birthday and what not I was feeling sort of nostalgic for the NYC of my youth. Back in the 1980's il Mulino practically defined upscale Italian. And so we found ourselves around a table that seemed capable of seating six or eight people. It turns out is really was just a four top, the extra room was for all the plates.
Even before we were presented a menu, let alone a wine list a mountain of food descended upon the table, delivered by a procession of tuxedo clad waiters. Salty coins of salami, delicate slivers of fried zucchini piled high on a plate, mussels served alongside a neon red bruscetta, a generous hunk of Parmesan cut from a giant wheel. The bread basket alone could feed the 5,000. The bucket of garlic bread that shows up a little later on felt like a sucker punch.
In light if all of this we skipped appetizers. We had actually already been served enough food that we could have skipped the rest of the meal altogether and still left sated. The three half orders of pasta didn't seem unreasonable when we ordered them. While we waited and digested Mr. Relentless and I argued over the edibility of the food at the San Generao feast. He professes to know where the "real deal" places to eat sausage and peppers are. But he claims this about almost everything - the best hot dog in Yankee stadium, best oysters on the boardwalk in Coney Island, best coffee in Soho.
Of course the "half "portions of pasta that showed up were twice the size of most half orders at other restaurants. I dread to think what a full order looks like here. The pastas were generally respectable - a brothy carbonara and a briny squid ink pasta with a treasure trove of seafood both proved toothsome; a soupy spaghetti Bolognese was merely adequate, the Parmesan cheese serving as its only organizing principle.
And then, like the apocalypse came the main course. A whole roasted rack of lamb, cooked to a pitch perfect rare served with potatoes was simply wonderful. The eye was almost as big as a veal chop (although not the veal chop il Mulino) and had impressive marbling along with a tender texture.
You might expect a chop this size to be considered mutton with a gamey character but it tasted as sweet as any lamb I have had. It was probably enough food for three rationale minds but of course we had ordered two additional mains.
The massive, softball sized veal chop was preposterous in both preparation and price - it came stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella before being battered and pan fried and it cost $56. Despite all that is going on with the dish - it approaches turducken in absurdity - the quality of the ingredients redeems it.
The veal is tender inside, the crust pleasingly crispy. The cheese and prosciutto meld into a creamy, oozy, savory mass. Throw on top of it all a mushroom infused sauce and one attains a level decadence that not even the Romans could have conceived.
But perhaps most impressive/distressing was a sprawling veal Parmesan the size of a Neapolitan pizza. Thicker than you might like, but not too bready, as you might expect it to be it, came blanketed in molten cheese, a moat of red sauce circling it. The cutlet is served with a rib bone sticking out of the side but I suspect it was purely for presentation purposes, there is simply not enough meat in a veal chop to craft the massive disc of meat. I am pretty sure that we were eating a cutlet from the round (or leg) that has the bone pounded into to it to attach it. Despite the gargantuan proportions of the thing it somehow worked in a way that, for example, a giant hamburger never does.
Mr. Relentless had ordered broccoli rabe as the waiter finished our order. A typical move on his part, he has to try to get the last word in, even if that word is a limp, garlicky vegetable. Of course no one ate it when it arrived, it looked like mere garnish amongst the slabs of meat on the table. Still, between us we polished off everything else but the potatoes which were soggy and rather tasteless.
Larry was looking a bit grey at this point. But Mr. Relentless and I were determined to press on up river. Apocalypse Now. We ordered a predictably-frozen-solid tartufo and poached pears with crema Inglese. The latter is prepared table side, yet another tuxedo clad waiter daintily divides the pears, arranging them neatly on the plate with kiwi, raspberries and blackberries used as garnish. Meanwhile the head waiter will ply you with home made grapa. Drink it, it softens the blow of the inevitable bill which is bound to be astronomical, even if you do order the cheapest cab.
The thing about the cuisine at il Mulino is that it doesn't really exist outside of the confines of the restaurant. It is of course Italian on some level but I can't imagine a veal milanese this size, or price, anywhere in Italy. Everything is oversized and over the top. It is expensive to be sure but the portions are outrageous in size and are constructed from high quality ingredients. Good meat is expensive, very good meat is very expensive and the meat here is very, very good. You get what you pay for in terms of quality and quantity, thats for sure. What you don't get is authentic Italian food, at least not as we understand it today.
An Italian chef friend of mine asked me how il Mulino compares to Patsy's in Times Square (the classic red sauce restaurant that Frank Sinatra popularized, not the pizzeria chain) I replied that the cuisine is more evolved and refined at il Mulino but equally stagnant and locked in time. While Patsy's is stuck in 1944 il Mulino is stuck in 1984. But, I suppose that is the point of these restaurants, they have become quintessential. Just as Larry and Mr. Relentless have in my life. Thanks for everything chaps.
Il Mulino 86 West 3rd Street New York, NY 10012-1095