On a quiet block behind a few massive NYU buildings, behind a curtain-covered window, and through two doors, lies one of the most highly regarded restaurants in New York. There’s no celebrity chef or big name restaurateur, no bragging about using local and organic foods, and no noisy crowds waiting to get a table. Il Mulino is a small and modest traditional Italian restaurant, and the type of restaurant you don’t just walk into. Il Mulino is for those who plan in advance, or maybe those who are very important. I’m not sure if Obama had a reservation when he ate here with Bill Clinton, but there probably was some planning involved for clearing out the place, and placing guards all over the neighborhood.
Whether you’re the president or not, Il Mulino makes you feel special. The uber-attentive staff makes sure there’s always food at your table, avoiding the usual “uh, when is our food going to be here” complaint mumbled by at least one diner out of every party. This is my favorite thing about the restaurant. As soon as we sat down, we were served bruschetta and mussels, and presented with some salami, a plate of fried sliced zucchini, a basket of breads, and a piece of parmesan cheese picked from the largest wedge I’d ever seen. A waiter brought the probably 20 lb piece of cheese to our table, and used a little tool to get a nice crumbly hunk onto each of our plates. I’d never experienced anything like this before, not even in Italy. And this was all even before we were given menus.
After we had some time to enjoy our complimentary antipasti, we got menus, and before even opening them up, a very Italian waiter recited a whole list of specials he had masterfully memorized. After asking him to repeat a few, and browsing the menu, I had decided what I would order.When I was younger I would automatically order pasta, or possibly chicken, but in the past few years, I’ve been ordering a salad, and then whatever fish looks the best, or occasionally steak. Il Mulino is famous for their pastas, so of course I had to order one, I didn’t even look at the meats or fish on the menu.
I started with the rucola salad. It was a good-sized portion of just the leaves lightly tossed in a vinaigrette, the perfect precursor to a hearty main course. I chose one of the specials, a pappardelle with pieces of sausage, mushrooms, and basil in a simple tomato sauce. It was absolutely the best pasta I’ve ever had. The pasta was so fresh and the flavors were so delicious, that words really can’t do it justice. I didn’t finish the pasta because I didn’t want to leave feeling too full and not think back so fondly about the meal, but when I had the cold clump of leftover pasta two days later, it was still amazing. We also ordered some of the peas and asparagus side dishes, which were also very fresh and flavorful. Before being served, the pasta is brought out from the kitchen to the front of the restaurant where a little hot plate heats it up while the sauce is added to ensure serving it as warm as possible. This also adds an element of performance to the already dramatic meal, with its multitude of waiters, who seemed to each cover a different part of the meal, sometimes overlapping by duplicate dessert offers, and making sure everything was good.
The cuisine of Abruzzo, where the Masci brothers behind Il Mulino are from, puts an emphasis on simple yet hearty foods made lovingly from fresh ingredients, and that’s exactly what I got. Coupled with the traditional Italian atmosphere and superb service, dining at Il Mulino is a full-on event, not just a dinner. It’s something that everyone who is ever in New York should plan on doing, at least once, if they can.