1167 Madison Avenue, NY, NY, 212-737-7711 www.pinoluongo.com/centolire.html
I'd been to Pino Luongo's uptown homage to his Tuscan roots twice. My first visit was not long after it opened in 2001 and I was dazzled. A return visit a couple of years later produced the same delight. And so, I was anxious to take my partner in love, food and crime to what I considered one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city. We'd been talking about it for several years and yet something always got in the way so we were both excited about our dinner reservations this past Saturday night. Centolire!
Unfortunately, the years since I last visited here have not been kind and the poor economy visible. The once clubby-feeling downstairs dining room has been converted to a lower cost casual bistro. The once elegant upstairs dining room feels dated, perhaps a bit neglected. The heaping plates of food past, rich and delectable, have been scaled back both in complexity and seasoning. Prices are lower and so is the experience.
The Insalata Della Garfagnana, a salad of greens with cranberry beans, chick peas, sweet peas, beets and goat cheese was bland. The dressing lacked vinegar and seasoning and the beans were just thrown on, undressed, as if someone had just taken them out of a can. It was beautifully presented but the taste didn't match the appearance.
Sauteed chicken livers with shallots, white wine and fennel seemed interesting and were, in fact, tasty and flavorful. But the portion was enormous and the taste not complex enough to finish the contents of the giant bowl. Veal Milanese was fine, not the best we've had but fine. Penne de Farro with braised cauliflower ragout was also somewhat ordinary and needed salt, pepper and cheese to create any flavor. We shared a dessert of a gooey chocolate cake, overdone on the outside, too liquid on the inside and slightly bitter to boot. We did enjoy the good Argentinean Cabernet but would have liked it to enhance some richer flavors.
The dining room is large and comfortable but with a geriatric vibe. We are in our 40's and were among the youngest people in the room. We felt as if we should be taking both our mothers out to dinner here. There's plenty of staff yet indifferent service. We, along with diners at several other tables, had to remind the waiter to bring bread. The offer of cheese on our pasta was an afterthought and no large, traditional mill of fresh pepper was produced. Salt and pepper shakers stand on each table and are sorely needed. Most of the service was competent but far from enthusiastic and there was no sign of the famous chef/owner in the dining room...and no touch of his famous Italian charm to be found. Sigh.