Bettola: The Inferno or Paradiso of Italian cuisine?

At first, Jeff found it hard to tell.

The handsome eatery beckons, promising cool shelter from New York’s harsh summer sun.  I sit amid hushed russet lamps and darkly polished tables while a brick oven burns rustically in the background.  The menu’s descriptions are tantalizing and so are the prices—all reasonable for a place of such understated elegance.  Finally I taste the food and realize—I’ve been duped.  Bettola, an Italian restaurant located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, might look like a classy place to grab dinner but it isn’t.  The food is utterly mediocre, a discovery all the more disappointing for the restaurant’s dazzling décor.

If you start with the Asparagi Al Forno ($10), a plate of asparagus and melted cheese, you’ll begin to see what I mean. It looks and tastes how I’ve described it, that is, entirely unadorned.  The sauce-and-meat-ball appetizer also suffers for its bald-faced crudity.  In both cases you get what you order I suppose—asparagus in cheese or meatballs in sauce—but beyond that there’s not much more to be said, certainly nothing about style or subtlety.

If you want something more complicated (something with more ingredients than you can count on one hand), you’ll find yourself confronted with a dish as confused about itself as you’re bound to be.  The Insalata Di Farro ($9) is a higgledy-piggledy mess of beans and other veggies.  None of its elements stand out with particular vigor, which would be fine if their effect in combination wasn’t equally feeble.  The Zuppa Di Campagna ($7) is a similarly leguminous jumble without much direction or energy.  Of course, there is the lamb-filled Ravioli ($9.50), satisfyingly bite-sized bits of meat, spinach and curry served in a pleasantly spiced reduction, but that’s about as good as the antipasto ever gets.

If you’re going to brave the Paste Fresche steer clear of the Integrale ($13).  The first bite is adequate but you’re bound to lose steam as you go.  The second forkful is like a bad second date, one on which you’ll discover there was only more surface to a person you were hoping had further depth, or at least a surprise or two.  No surprises here.

Then again, there’s always Braciola Di Pollo ($16).  Elegantly arranged, these curvaceous cuts of chicken taste as succulent as they look while spinach-and-fontina stuffing pays each a deliciously melting compliment.  Unfortunately, this isn’t just your best bet; this is your only bet among the secondi.  Otherwise, there are things like Polleto Al Mattone ($17).  Utterly lacking in any sort of personality or imagination, this harsh-tasting hen seemed more like menu filler than a dish in its own right.

The Salmone Al Forno ($17) is a step up, though not by much.  The fish was bland and the potatoes stubborn, though the zucchini proved pleasantly yielding.  The Tagliata Al Ferri ($22) is a strip steak, tougher in some places and softer in others, though nowhere was it what I would call tender.  Bettola serves nearly all their main dishes with a skimpy sprinkling of sides, which would be easy to overlook if they didn’t skimp so much on taste.

Their wine list is invitingly accessible for beginners, divided into three registers of complexity (and price).  I would stick to at least the intermediate level; the more gently priced wines tend to go down harsher.  One thing I will say for the restaurant, its staff is faultlessly efficient.  You won’t have time to ask for anything before it appears in front of you, even if the person setting it down seems inexplicably sullen.  When it’s time to leave you may be sullen yourself, though hardly without explanation.

– D.  Schwartz

Details:

Bettola

412 Amsterdam Avenue.  212-787-1660

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