Whether you classify Lodi — from the team behind Estela and Altro Paradiso — as an accessible Rockefeller Center cafe or an exorbitant canteen for television executives will depend on whether you’re dropping in for a quick pastry or whether you’ve booked a table to pay country club prices for a very average salad.
Those who sit down for full-service breakfast or lunch will find a bowl of oatmeal that costs more than a six-pack of IPA ($16); a composed plate of fennel and bottarga that commands steeper prices than most restaurant burgers ($24); and a single offering of ice cream that happens to be a large-format ice cream. That frozen treat runs $25. It feeds up to four people, per the menu, which would be great for an after-dinner hang with a group of friends. Problem is, Lodi closes at 4 p.m. And in case you’re thinking about attacking the ice cream solo for an early lunch, a waiter tells me they don’t provide empty pint containers for leftovers.
By contrast, those who swing by for a quick snack or a spot of coffee will encounter a more affordable-ish hangout, a safe haven for independently minded culinary bliss amid all the slickly branded retail frontage of Midtown Manhattan. This is no small matter; tens of thousands of office workers and tourists surely pass through Rockefeller Center every day to work, shop, and ogle a very big Christmas tree. The cruel realities of commercial real estate notwithstanding, it’s hard not to wish the landlords here might replace a few cupcake shops and designer jewelry emporiums with corner delis and taquerias — to remind us all that approachable gastronomy belongs in even the shiniest slices of the city. And while I hear there’s some positive change on the horizon in this regard, Lodi for now offers a few solid lunch deals, including a porchetta sandwich made with the powerful flavors and generous portioning one might expect from a street vendor.
The kitchen also hawks what might be the chocolate croissant of the millennium, a cylinder-shaped pastry that offsets a subtle chewiness with a crunch so firm it recalls a fresh Dominican chicharron. It costs $7, which still makes it one of the city’s priciest pain au chocolats, but, hey, at least it’s cheaper than the ice cream.
New York underwent — and is still undergoing — a pandemic bakery boom, not a surprising reality since these establishments cater to folks looking for brief daytime delights, rather than full-fledged sit-down meals. Over the past year or so, Frenchette Bakery sprouted up in the old Arcade space downtown; Dominique Ansel found a home for giant brioche bressanes in Flatiron; Sofreh Cafe brought Persian breads to Bushwick; and the Salento crew gifted Washington Heights with a solid Colombian panaderia. The local shuttering of the Maison Kayser and Bouchon chains also left a pastry power vacuum of sorts across Manhattan.
It’s against this backdrop that chef Ignacio Mattos, who helms the growing Matter House Empire, is strolling into the heart of town with Lodi, occupying an old Bouchon outpost and purveying pitch-perfect croissants, girellas, bombolone, and lush anchovy platters with golden slabs of focaccia.
Mattos has traditionally drawn crowds with subtle bits of modern whimsy: hiding piles of luscious blue cheese under lean towers of endive and secretly tucking potato chips under crimson sheaths of beef carpaccio. Lodi, however, is a more straightforward affair. And while it’s painful to experience a Mattos restaurant without the excellent pastries and warm presence of Natasha Pickowicz, who ran the desserts program at Altro and the now-closed Flora Bar, Lodi has an estimable baker in its own right: Louis Volle, a Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Tartine alum who mills his own flour and oversees the daily production of breads and viennoiserie.
What also helps set Lodi apart is that it’s easily the most luxurious of the city’s new bakeries, a grand Italian cafe decked out in marble and gold trim. Come by for a stellar pastry and all of a sudden you’re overlooking one of the city’s grand Art Deco piazzas. On a recent morning, I dropped by after a bike race to admire Lee Lawrie’s godlike Wisdom sculpture and to fuel up with a pastry that’s not quite rare in Manhattan but not quite as ubiquitous as it should be: the great maritozzo con la panna.
Volle splits brioche buns — imagine a three-dimensional Pac-Man — and stuffs them with vanilla pastry cream and fig leaf-infused Chantilly. The end product appears light, but Volle bakes his buns with fresh-milled Edison wheat flour, imparting them with proper heft and heartiness. The result is a wonderful contrast: a savory bread with a bit of chew, and a mess of aromatic cream that disappears with the weight of a cloud.
This is the Lodi I like to muse upon, the one filled with stellar baked goods, rather than the one hawking $32 vitello tonnato appetizers and truffled bottarga salads with little taste of truffle or bottarga — dishes that seem aimed toward well-heeled tourists and nearby television types who are back in their offices. A patron in a maroon suit next to me rattled on for 30 minutes about “audience engagement strategy” for a series of prominent reality shows while nibbling away at a pistachio girella — a crunchy pinwheel of laminated brioche filled with a nutty cream as powerful as marzipan.
Those of us who don’t have time to make it Midtown for a business-class lunch might have dinner service to look forward to later this fall. For now, I’ll come for the takeout prosciutto sandwich ($9), a pile of thinly-sliced meat on soft brioche with butter. There’s nothing particularly grand about it; it’s just good bread doing its best to highlight a bit of nutty Italian ham.
Even better is the porchetta on a crusty baguette — fatty pork that’s been sliced thin, piled high, and paired with dense slices of cracklin for umami crunch. What sets this sandwich apart is the kitchen’s liberal use of fennel pollen, admittedly not an uncommon addition in classic Tuscan versions of the dish. But here, chef de cuisine Maxime Pradié (late of Flora) sprinkles it with so much of the ingredient that the top half of the sandwich practically turns orange, letting the meat flaunt a thermonuclear level of anise-y warmth. These are the tweaks one expects from Mattos and his crew, who have long shown a knack for transforming a dish with deceptively simple ingredients; try Estela’s beef tartare laced with fish sauce and sunchokes and you’ll see what I mean.
The classic bread-and-butter course also gets the Matter House upgrade. Pradié places five anchovies on a white plate next to a pyramid of whipped butter and a few strips of charred Jimmy Nardelo peppers. At first glance, the dish comes across as an absurd expression in austerity and primary colors: brown, red, and yellow. Then you start eating. You pile the ingredients onto dense, oily focaccia for an essay in creamy dairy fat, rich maritime salts, and capsicum-based sugar. In lesser hands this trio would come across as an average wedding canape. At Lodi, it is elemental, like the discovery of earth, wind, and fire.
In an ideal world this would be the time for a frozen treat, but Lodi insists on that large portion of expensive, made-to-order fior di latte ice cream. For something more reasonable, consider the budino di riso ($12), which doesn’t so much taste like rice pudding as it does firm, sweetened risotto bathed in fresh cream. Mattos and Pradié hide a pile of red wine-poached concord grapes at the bottom of the ramekin, letting the musky fruit act in acidic relief to the heady milk.
The chocolate croissant, or flauto al cioccolato, is a fine way to finish things off as well. Dominique Ansel recently created a bit of news by stuffing not two but rather three bars of chocolate into his pain au chocolat. Mattos and crew call that bet with three bars as well, except they’re so closely spaced they appear as one, like a fat little candy bar hidden inside a pastry.
Because the croissant is long and shaped like a ribbed rod — evoking a miniaturized Shai-Hulud from Denis Villeneuve’s Dune — it packs a higher ratio of chocolate to pastry than the fluffier and chewier Gallic staple. Each bite is a precisely calibrated combination of sugar, dark French chocolate, and extraordinarily crispy laminated dough. The idea behind the flauta, as the Lodi team tells me, was “to showcase the lamination by flipping or exposing it thereby changing the aesthetics and the way it eats.” Yes, it’s more expensive than most bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, and about half as nourishing, but it’s really a heck of a pastry — a little bit of accessible luxury to pair with one of the city’s great public spaces.