In Al Coro, Italian fine dining is made fun

In Al Coro, Italian fine dining is made fun
Courtesy of The New York Times

Del Posto's former space has been reborn.

Rodriguez, who ran the Del Posto kitchen after Marc Ladner's departure in 2017, made Al Coro a near-impossible project on paper. After taking over as general manager eight years ago, when the landmark restaurant closed for Covid-19 in 2020 and permanently in 2021, Katz and her husband purchased the restaurant and gutted it, reimagining what fine dining would look like after a pandemic, and working to exorcise Mario Batali's demons.

The restaurant occupies a space of 24,000 square feet that is ideally suited for Equinox or Tao-type clubstaurants, and it's on a block where former mega-restaurants like Joël Robuchon's Atelier, Morimoto's Morimoto, and Toro are conspicuously absent, all of them murdered by Covid. In addition to 150 seats, there will also be a downstairs bar, Discolo, opening soon.

This is more than just a swing for Italian fine dining. This is a place that proves that the big ideas are still alive in New York.

Rather than start fresh elsewhere, Katz and Rodriguez decided to buy Del Posto. 

In addition to the grand staircase, Al Coro got rid of Del Posto's "New Jersey funeral home" vibe. The grand staircase was replaced by a nine-seat bar with backlit liquor bottles. White linens were replaced with chocolate tablecloths.

Courtesy of Eater NY

Yves Saint Laurent's living room and Wilt Chamberlain's bedroom were included in a moodboard for Discolo, and the restaurant's custom chrome and microsuede furniture carried over some of that throwback aesthetic.

Having worked in a casual restaurant for 20 years, Rodriguez was forced to strip dishes of ideas and components in order to open Mel's, a wood-fired pizzeria earlier this year.

The pandemic also devastated fine dining establishments. In spite of the fact that most of Del Posto's management team returned to open Al Coro, including the director of food and beverage, pastry chef, chef de cuisine, director of operations, kitchen manager, event director, facility director, and head pasta maker, they were determined to do things differently.

In addition to exaggerated service steps and tableside theater, diners are getting live music instead of exaggerated service steps and tableside theater at a restaurant like Al Coro. On the evening I visited, vocalist Alicia Olatuja sang in a silver-sequined dress from a newly constructed mezzanine framed by newly constructed arches. The dining room will be anchored by a balcony-as-stage where rotating bands will perform every night.

The chef's cooking is available only at 85 10th Avenue: molten cheese at Mel's and a million pieces of meat at Al Coro that he says he "tried and practiced and ripped apart into a million pieces."

A razor-sharp New Yorker flips and edits the menu's regional Italian deep cuts to create an opening menu priced at $245 for seven courses and $195 for five. The seven antipasti are one-bite treats that get your brain and palate working. The radishe centers are hollowed out and filled with anchovies and turnips purée, which makes them look like high-end catering crudité. In a crunchy vessel made from fried artichokes, electric colatura caramel, candied lemon, red onion pickled in magenta and mint are cradled by thinly shaved bresaola with its doppelganger beet.

Sardinian dumplings shaped like grains of wheat, culurgiones, are served with razor clams and caviar quenelles with potatoes, fontina, and mascarpone filling. The pasta team at Rodriguez's creates a perfect, toothsome ring of dough by hand for her version of southern Italian anelletti al forno, all the better to catch little bits of braised pork cheek and escarole.

The American school of Italian cooking has influenced chicken marsala, a dish that is neither cheap nor familiar. With mushroom stock, dashi, and a marsala reduction, Rodriguez thickens the sauce with quinoa purée, a gluten-free twist. A black sea bass replaces chicken, stuffed with mushroom duxelle and served over king trumpet mushrooms that are meaty and chewy. It took me a few days to realize the dish's homely origins due to its bold texture and earthy flavor.

The high-end dining I've experienced in the past couple of years has felt rather obvious and safe. But Rodriguez's game at Al Coro is a whole different story.

The final savory course of the meal would fall into three categories: high fun, mid-low overwhelming and serious, and low precious. Her Peking duck set with a Sicilian backbone is influenced by the proximity of Little Italy and Chinatown in New York, where she cooked for an event. In place of the duck, she brined and dried a chicken overnight.

The breast is thinly sliced and served over a warm chicken leg salad after some steaming and curing of respective parts. The serious part is that it takes some time. But what fun is that? A stack of farinata pancakes to scoop and assemble bites overwhelm Westerners who are freaked out by eating with their hands, as well as cherry mostarda, fennel slaw, spring caponata and Italian chile crisps.

It is easy to enjoy Georgia Wodder's desserts because they mimic the bite-size antipasti format, so you won't feel like you have to push through a final course of food. With a lemon verbena meringue and a strawberry cardamaro caramel, followed by a miniature tartufa alla fragola, you'll be blown away. A slice of Sicilian brioche is topped with fennel gelato and cantaloupe granita, no spoon required. Then there's a bittersweet, rich and potent chocolate crostata with espresso gelato and a balsamic drizzle for those who are looking for a decadent and clear conclusion to their meal.

As Al Coro has only been open for a few weeks, it is still early days. The wine cellar is still being built, and the service is still being tweaked. Rodriguez will update the menu every month, and Katz expects to adjust the music and the experience as they go, but only to a certain point.

It may be hard to find vanilla at Al Coro, a restaurant that feels like it's truly stepping out of the pandemic, aside from the bombastic tartufa alla fragola, despite the fact that it sells well these days. It is a metaphor for New York if I have ever eaten one, not only is there joy and celebration, but also risk and challenge.

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