When Il Cantinori opened in 1983, New York City was at a fine-dining watershed. The public started seeking out Italian food over French — reversing a predilection that had been in place for well over 100 years. Moreover, the focus of Italian restaurants was changing. Previously, these establishments concentrated mainly on southern Italian food, and even those describing themselves as northern Italian still featured pastas awash in melted cheese and tomato sauce.
Suddenly, restaurants like Il Cantinori were focusing on Tuscan fare, a central Italian cuisine defined by its fresh ingredients, simplicity, earthy flavors, and dearth of tomato sauce. Indeed, Il Cantinori was the second Tuscan in town, preceded only by Da Silvano, opened in 1975, also in the Village. Both became celebrity hangouts in the 80s. Jennifer Aniston, Richard Gere, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dolly Parton, Salman Rushdie, Tom Cruise, and Sarah Jessica Parker were reported to be regulars at Il Cantinori, and famously, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring rode into the dining room on a motorcycle one evening in 1984.
I’d never been before when I made a recent visit. The dining room looks much as it did in 1983, with brick walls, mirrors, sprays of flowers, terracotta floor tiles, white stucco, and discreet dining nooks. A big table has stood in front of the restaurant for decades under an overhang, protected from the sidewalk by a low hedge. Nowadays, it is most often occupied with extended-family gatherings and sorority reunions. An outdoor shed partakes of some of the same low-key elegance, and neighborhood dog walkers still pause as they pass, searching the faces for celebrities.
The owners, then as now, were Steve Tzolis, Nicola Kotsoni, and Frank Minieri. But how good was the food back then, really? In the mid-80s when Bryan Miller reviewed it in his New York Times Guide to Restaurants (1987), he praised it for decor and service, but faulted it for gummy pastas and dry game specials, though lauding a buttery pasta in a creamy tomato sauce dotted with sausage. When Ruth Reichl visited in 1998, also for the Times, she was shocked at how little fidelity there was to true Tuscan fare, concluding, “Unfortunately, Il Cantinori has become just another restaurant trading on the image [of Tuscan cooking].”
I went with a companion early on a sweltering evening, and was seated in the outdoor shed. Only about a third full at 6 pm, the restaurant already bustled with staffers as the maitre d,’ dressed in a suit and tie, greeted regulars and guided them to what I assumed were their habitual tables. Though not badly dressed, my guest and I marveled at the snazzy apparel of the other diners, reflecting a formality associated with dining in a previous age.
A couple of amuses arrived, letting us know Il Cantinori is a classy joint that, if expensive, would still lavish you with perks. The first was pappa al pomodoro, a porridge of tomatoes and bread crumbs that is the soul of Florentine cooking; it was absolutely delicious. Table bread was provided in abundance, with a bottle of olive oil emblazoned with the name of the restaurant. But while the pappa was spectacular, the next amuse was not: cheese and salami — not the coarse-textured salami found in Tuscany, but a disappointingly commercial-tasting sausage.
Intent on pursuing the usual Italian three-course savory progression, we ordered an antipasto, a primo, and a secondo, figuring the courses would be shareable (they were). Among apps, I craved the chicken livers in a sage butter sauce ($23), but with the temp still hovering around 92 degrees, it seemed a bit too heavy. Instead, we picked another Tuscan classic, the bread salad panzanella ($19).
I’d have to say it was pretty good, the tomatoes sweet, the bread gobbets predictably few (customers apparently still fear carbs), and a nice sharp dressing jolted by basil. But I’d had a better one recently featuring heirloom tomatoes, which the restaurant, Macosa Trattoria, had clearly knocked itself out to make. This one was fine except that, digging underneath, a giant vein of baby arugula revealed itself. Not only did its bitter taste conflict with the sweet and oniony salad, but it turned a revered Tuscan specialty into more of a fast-casual salad.
Luckily, the restaurant redeemed itself with our pasta order of pappardelle alla buttera. A frilly noodle came opulently drenched in a rich tomato sauce bolstered with a touch of cream, enfolding ground sausage and the occasional fresh pea. Every bite was heaven. This, we concluded, was the same pasta praised by Bryan Miller 35 years ago. The price ($39) was high, but it easily satisfied two.
Just as Miller had complained about the game, our course proved deficient in a similar way. More bone than flesh, the grilled rabbit ($39) had obviously been cooked earlier in the day, set aside, and then reheated, rendering it dry. But the meal took an upswing 20 minutes later when our dessert was delivered, a pale white panna cotta ($15) with blueberry syrup — the restaurant had thoughtfully divided it on two plates.
We rehashed our meal as we sat later in Washington Square Park and concluded Il Cantinori made an excellent, if expensive, spot to impress a date, and one nice for family gatherings if mom or dad are paying. Still, better and truer Tuscan food is to be found nearby at places like Via Carota and Fiaschetteria.