I've never wanted a vast loft space dwelling more than the day I wandered around Moss and saw the sheep. They were basically three sizes of sawhorse designed to look like grazing sheep for sitting astride. I immediately had visions of a small flock of seats gathered in a shady corner of a huge apartment on Astroturf with maybe the skin of one of these awesome chairs laid over a similar wolf stool. Imagine the fun at cocktail parties as people spread the mutton settees around the room, those in skirts demurely sitting sidesaddle. It's not often I am swooped up by a spatial vision and for that I will always be grateful to Murray Moss and his showroom on Houston.
The genius of Italian wine is in the small producers who create regional wines designed to accompany regional dishes, but that can easily travel well outside their provincial bounds. Italian wine can be very confounding, however. Besides being incredibly region-specific, most of the actually interesting wines of Italy are made by small producers, and are only very recently getting the attention of importers. Due to this fact, if, while dining out, you find an amazing bottle and a dish you can probably make at home to go with it, it is likely that you will have trouble finding that wine retail. Here is where the group at I Trulli had a stroke of genius: open a retail store across the street from the restaurant and sell the wines you serve. If you love it in the restaurant wine bar, it's a safe bet you can get it in the shop.
Earlier this week Moss and I' Trulli joined forces to open Cento Vini on the south side of Houston at Mercer, next to Moss. Sadly there are no sheep to straddle while you imbibe and dine. Actually, the room is a very uncluttered café set up around a large bar. The furniture consists of very simple black chairs and tables that would seem boring until you sit and realize there is a sense to the modest furnishing. It is made from a stiff, slightly pliable rubber (or plastic), which makes it quiet, comfortable, and slightly gripping; silver isn't going to go sliding off these tables without a lot of work on your part. The rest of the room is quite simple, tasteful and unassuming, the highlight being the lighting. There are Venetian glass pendants over the bar, a ball-shaped chandelier of crystal trumpets, and through the glass partition to the wine shop is exactly the grape-themed chandelier you would want in your two-story, subterranean tasting room if you had one.
The wine list was presented as the genesis of a work in progress. At this point there are about forty offerings, all Italian, including sparkling, white, red, rosé and dessert. They are listed alphabetically and span a good sampling of Italy's regions. The bottom of the list explains that the by-the-glass offerings are a five ounce pour (delivered in a cruet), which means there are slightly more than five per bottle. This makes for an interesting selection if you enjoy arbitrage opportunities: on some of the bottles you save a couple bucks going by the glass and on others you lose a couple.
Like I Trulli, there is a wine store to go with this restaurant, this one right next door rather than across the street. Currently they offer about 120 wines all of which seem to be selected to drink now, (if you are looking for a collectible Barolo you will still probably want to go to Vino) and they plan to get to about 160. This begs the question of why they named the place "100 wines." This is not very bothersome though, because as far as wine goes a plethora beats a literal translation any day. Somewhat troubling, however, is that a cursory examination revealed the '01 Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco, available around town between seventy and eighty dollars, priced at ninety-eight: a rather sizable discrepancy for a current vintage wine. The same wine is $165 on the restaurant's list meaning unless there is a $67 dollar corkage fee there is and arbitrage opportunity here as well
The current menu, also a work in progress, offers formaggi (cheese), salumi (cured meats), dolci (sweets), piatti vegetariani (vegetables), pesce (fish), and carne (meat). The waitress explained that there were no appetizers; rather everything was in a portion somewhere between appetizer and entrée. With this guideline, two of us decided to share four dishes, and not worry about portion.
The chopped salad of lettuces, scallions, asparagus, and radishes was very fresh and clean tasting with a simple vinaigrette that had clearly been put on right after chopping. It was as fluffy as salad can be. If it lacked anything, it was some kind of fat, be it nuts, cheese, or meat. For all this salad's freshness it was rather one-note and would drag astringency out of any wine as is.
Fava been purée with morels accompanied the chopped salad. The simplest of preparations: a purée of favas was topped with boiled fava beans and roasted morels. This was served with bread slices and may have made more sense as bruschetta (without the bread, it lacked textural contrast). It was clean and definitely unadulterated, but
landed a little flat, and the texture was not as smooth as it might have been, so I drizzled a little olive oil (containing young, fresh, grassy, peppery and tomato leaf notes, it was brought upon request) over it and mashed it in. This simple addition added a vibrancy as well as smoothness to the favas while contrasting with the morels to allow them to show their earthiness.
In our second round was raviolini alle ortiche, homemade ravioli with nettles and sheep's ricotta. A good indicator for the potential of an Italian place is how they handle pasta and in their first week this dish bodes well. An adaptation of ravioli in brown butter with sage, the pasta was the focus of this dish. A noodle with proper bite and good flavor was stuffed in a proportion favoring the pasta, tossed with the ricotta and chopped nettles, with some additional nettles in the sauce. The richness of butter and the chlorophyll of the nettles teamed with the creamy tang of the ricotta to feature well made and well prepared pasta.
Our final sampling of the evening was cuttlefish with pepperonata and polenta. The fish was perfect, with tapering ribbons of the sweet flesh nicely crispy at the thin end while being a perfect fleshy chew at the thicker. The polenta was unassuming, offering a comparable texture and sweetness born of the earth while staying in a supporting role to the fish. The pepperonata was a fine dice, nicely sweet and sour, asserting itself without getting too showy for the lighter flavors of this dish.
On the whole, I would say Cento Vino has promise: all the food was of serious quality in execution and freshness. What is there at this point is simple, sometimes excellent and sometimes a little short of that, but their dishes can easily evolve as the wine list and menu fill out. It is worth mentioning that the dishes are actually appetizer size, not larger, and are on the more expensive side. Two of us split four dishes, which left us hungry, and including tax (but excluding drinks), cost a little more than $69 for simply prepared, small dishes of inexpensive product in a wine bar. Rather than go for dinner your first time I would suggest that you check it out for snacks and a bottle.
Centovini, 25 West Houston at Greene Street, (212) 219-2113; dishes range from $12-26.