When walking down Madison Avenue between 65th and 66th Streets, you can’t miss Bar Italia, especially on a warm summer night with its French doors wide open. The restaurant is sparkling white from floor to ceiling, with bright red accents. It has a welcoming openness. Passersby are sure to be drawn in by the many diners enjoying themselves inside.
Bar Italia is compact, similar to the neighborhood bar/restaurants all over Italy. It is a place where friends and strangers can hang out, have great food, and be supremely comfortable in their environment. There is a small bar at the front, with tables both inside and "outside" for patio dining.
On the wall in large, black script is an Italian expression that, even though you may not understand it, attracts your attention. Translated, it means: "A population of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, explorers, trans-migrants and great lovers."
The writing somehow fits the effortless sophistication of this restaurant in the same way the simple black and white photos of Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale grace the walls. Whoever designed it recognized that the essence of these classic beauties would help define its existence. It worked for us; we loved it. Who doesn’t love Sophia Loren!
The menu is neo-classical and eclectic, filled with a variety of dishes certain to make you a fan. There is also a daily assortment of off-menu items, so that any night you are in for delectable surprises. It feels like the chef is cooking for himself and it brings him joy to share it with you. Actually, this is true. And what's more, if you don’t see what you want, either on the menu or as a special, the Chef will happily make it.
Chef and co-owner Denis Francischini is from Trento, Italy. He has an envious 20+ year career at one of the top Italian hotels in the world. After serving as an Executive Chef and opening up other people’s restaurants, he decided to go into business for himself. At Bar Italia, he is partnered with Hassan El Garrahy, who also owns Orsay in New York.
We arrived at Bar Italia a little later than we expected. We’d just come from the Museum of Natural History, and had to be at the theatre for an 8 pm curtain, so dinner was not going to be as leisurely as we would have liked. That’s really tough when the Chef is sitting at your table wanting very much to please you, and explaining all the love that goes into his dishes. He was practically bubbling over with gusto. This is why Bar Italia is so good. If you love what you do, the world takes notice.
We started with the Polipetto alla Griglia - Grilled Octopus on Chick Pea Puree. This little dish was so tasty and tender that we knew from the first tentacle, everything to follow would be great.
Our second appetizer was a fresh Salmon Tartare mixed with Avocado and Parsley, on a bed of Arugula. It was a refreshing, smart dish that went well with the wine.
Our salad course consisted of the Insalata di Fagiolini - String Beans, Caciocavallo Cheese and Cherry Tomatoes in Vinaigrette Dressing. Light and zesty with a dandy dressing.
We split the pasta course, each of us having small tastes of the very rich Tagliolini al Tartufo - Homemade Tagliolini in Butter, Parmigiano and Truffle Oil Sauce. The tastes were small; the enjoyment was huge!
For the main course, Dennis zeroed in on one of his favorite dishes, Fegato alla Veneziana - Calves Liver and Onions, with Toasted Polenta Triangles. His smile as he ate his way through this succulent dish said it all. Kudos to Chef Denis for having this rarely-served entree on the menu and cooking it so exquisitely, giving it a rich, subtle taste. Liver has about the highest amount of cholesterol of all beef, so it’s best in moderation, which is recognized by Bar Italia.
Marilyn went with the Piccata di Vitelllo - Veal Piccata cooked with an accompaniment of Orzo. The tasty classic was tender and savory.
When Chef Denis had time to sit with us, he asked if we knew what Baccala is. Dennis had previously tried this dry salted cod dish which is a favorite in northern Italy. When the plate was presented here, the Baccala was perched on crispy, baked polenta and was a lot smoother and creamier than traditional Baccala. Chef Denis had prepared his “Baccalati” with some “secret” ingredients, the result being a heavenly smooth, fish-infused treat.
We were running out of time, so we had to shorten the conversation and start dessert and coffee. If you didn’t know Bar Italia prepares gluten-free and vegan dishes, then you wouldn’t know about their Vegan Tiramisu. We are not vegans, but this “almost” tiramisu was creamy and flavorful. The real tiramisu was a knock-it-out-of-the-ball-park homerun! We devoured every last morsel and got ready to leave for the theatre.
Right about this time Chef Denis brought out his Panna Cotta for “just a little taste.” OMG! Dennis was eating it off the spoon as we were running out the door. All we can say is, “Try it, you’ll love it.”
From our first bite of Octopus to the last spoon of Panna Cotta, Bar Italia never failed to please. Everything here is accomplished with a certain pennachio, including the fresh white color scheme, the Italian divas on the wall and the superior products of the impeccably capable kitchen. Everything felt just right here. If you want some great Italian food and a warm, friendly atmosphere, Bar Italia is the place for you.
768 Madison Ave (65th & 66th)
New York, NY 10065
Note: Besides great chefs and Prosecco, Northern Italy is known as the bicycle capital of the world – filled with more frame makers, shoe, glove, saddle and bicycling clothing manufacturers than anywhere else. When Dennis told Chef Denis of his bike travels in Italy, especially around the Brenta River area that included two Gran Fondos run by Trento’s Francesco Moser (the legendary racer and mile record holder), they became fast friends. Chef Denis and guest Dennis vowed to ride together the next time Dennis is in New York.