Monthly Archives: November 2017

Wogies

wogies

I like bright, open spaces. Lots of windows. Modern, minimalist decor—clean lines and simple shapes. I don’t like clutter. I don’t like congestion.  I don’t like to eat in the dark. I don’t like to eat in the loud. I don’t like yelling over music, and I certainly don’t like yelling over drunk people. (Basically, I don’t like restaurants From The People That Brought You Hollister.) And I hate kitsch, too: sports memorabilia, autographs, dream-catchers—whatever the breed, it probably offends me. Call me picky, or something worse. Fact is, I hate the vast majority of bars.

So it’s a little strange, I guess, that I can tolerate Wogies, a bar’d-out, sports’d up sports bar with two locations in lower Manhattan. It’s tight, and it’s dark, and it’s packed with flatscreens and Eagles fans—but the food’s all right, and some of it’s actually sort of good, and only one dish (a dessert) has nuts in it. Everything else is safe, including the bread, which is made in house, and which has virtually no chance of having come into contact with nuts of any sort. As you all probably already know, I’ll go just about anywhere for a safe sandwich. What’s a night at a nearby sports bar, then? And a sports bar with outdoor seating, at that—which means that with a little creative positioning, I hardly have to acknowledge I’m at Wogies at all.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with blocking out my surroundings in the name of good food. I’ll happily shut down my senses of sight and hearing (and annoyance, my ever-important sixth) and just double down on smell and taste for the evening, provided, of course, that the smells and tastes I’m signing up for can stand up to that sort of focus. But the situation at Wogies isn’t quite so simple. Their dishes—or those I’ve selected to try, at least—fall into three categories: the kinda-bad, the just-okay, and the actually-kinda-good. That last category’s definitely real enough to keep me coming back. But…I don’t know.

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Most of the menu is made up of sandwiches: a few Philly cheesesteaks, and bunch more “Wogies originals.” There are wings and sides, too, but since the cheesesteaks are clearly, you know, the point, I figured I’d start with those. So my first time at Wogies, I ordered their standard cheesesteak: “seasoned steak,” grilled onions, and provolone (which I chose over American and the unpardonable monster that is Cheez Whiz), all wedged into a homemade Wogies roll. But despite how ready I was to like that thing, I just couldn’t. The steak, though plenty soft in texture, tasted tough. No, I’m not sure how that’s possible. I’m not even sure what it means. I guess it was the seasoning—too strong, kind of funky. Beyond these, I don’t have the words. But I didn’t like it, and I couldn’t ignore it.

No big deal. I figured I’d just stay away from the more steak-forward sandwiches. But that didn’t quite solve the problem. The chicken cheesesteak—same as the standard, but with marinated chicken breast in place of seasoned steak—was effectively the same as the one made with beef. And the “pizza steak,” also the same as the standard, but smothered in marinara, and with mozzarella and parmesan instead of provolone, is disappointing as well. I prefer it to the cheesesteaks, but only because the marinara covers the flavor of the meat. Far from good, it’s intensely wet and soggy—and though that marinara’s doing the Lord’s work, it’s not like it’s particularly engaging, taste-wise. It’s flat and boring, and the sheer amount of it guarantees a one-note sandwich.

All that suffering, and then a realization: Wogies offers two kinds of beef—not for you to choose from, cheese-style, within a given sandwich, but across their selection of sandwiches, at least. There’s “seasoned steak,” which term the menu uses to refer to the grublike chunks of steak with the funky flavor I half-described above, and then there’s “house-seasoned chopped steak,” which evidently signifies something else entirely: not chunks, but strips—ribbons, even, layered side by side (by side, by side) to form one tender, textured whole, entirely without the funk of the chunks. To my delight, the sandwiches made with the chopped steak…are actually pretty good.

One of those sandwiches, the cheeseburger hoagie (just what the name implies: a roll stuffed with steak, bacon, cheddar, grilled onions, lettuce, and tomato), bears an absolutely remarkable resemblance to a cheeseburger in both taste and texture, and it’s all right, if it’s a take on a cheeseburger you’re after. There’s also the Fat Jimmy (chopped steak, American cheese, hot peppers, french fries, and chili—pictured at the top), which, though ridiculous, is a lot of fun to eat. The meat itself—remember: ribbons, not grubs—is good ‘n’ greasy, with a nice, simple beefy flavor. And the American, though not exactly my cheese of choice, is totally inoffensive. Plus, I recently renewed my (burning!) passion for chili-cheese fries, so of course I’m on board with throwing some on a sandwich.

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But while the Fat Jimmy is my current favorite, I’d love to see it usurped. Perhaps by the Oscar (chopped steak, bacon, peppers, grilled onions, a cheese of your choosing, and two eggs, either scrambled or over easy), or by Adrian’s Atomic Avalanche (chopped steak, American, pepperoni, hot peppers, fried mozzarella balls, and marinara), or even by the Chicken Tender Club (chicken tenders, bacon, American, chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, banana peppers, and ranch). Chopped steak, man. It’s gotten my hopes way back up.

Of course, Wogies sells more than just sandwiches. There’s garbage bread (above and above-above)—in the menu’s words, “homemade Italian bread stuffed with 3 different kinds of Italian meats and cheese”—which is great in theory, but so-so (and so goddamn salty!) in practice. And there are wings, too, which are solid, provided you stick to the ones that are sauced. (The garlic-parmesan wings are the ones in the photo below. They need sauce. Badly.)  I’m decidedly not a Buffalo person, so I haven’t tried those, but I do like the honey-mustard wings, despite the fact that the “mustard” itself is, uh, candy-sweet. “Touch of natural honey,” my ass—but Wogies’ mild, creamy ranch tempers the sweetness nicely.

But if you ask me, the sides—sorry, “extras”—are where the real fun happens. (I feel this way about almost every low- to mid-tier restaurant, though, so take that statement with a grain of salt.) Ooey-gooey deep-fried mozzarella balls; solid, friendly chicken fingers; fried pickles, usually not soggy; and fries, good fries, standard or waffle, with chili, cheese, or gravy. The promise of chili-cheese fries was actually what compelled me to contact Wogies in the first place. And though these didn’t end my search—they’re no Al’s chili-cheddar fries, that’s for sure—they’re not half bad. The gravy’d waffle fries are good, too, as is everything else I listed above. Sides, man. Way, way, way overpriced, but sort of irresistible, once you’ve got that menu in your hands. Oh well.

Garlic-parmesan wings from Wogies

That’s Wogies. Way too expensive to be as hit-or-miss as it is, but perversely enticing nonetheless. The Call of the Bread plays a part in this restaurant’s appeal, to be sure—but you and I both know that’s not all that keeps me orderin’. Maybe I’m a glutton for food-punishment. Maybe I’m just particularly prone to wiping underwhelming dishes from my memory. After a while, they sort of just fade away. “It wasn’t so bad,” I’ll start to tell myself And before I know it, I’m back.

That, or…I just really, really, really love going out to eat. The whole process: picking a restaurant, riding the train there, getting annoyed at all sorts of inconsequential things about the restaurant and/or the people in it, deciding what to order, waiting, grumbling about hunger, waiting, waiting, and then, best of all—yes, even better than all the chewing—that moment of inarticulable bliss that accompanies the realization that it’s not a false alarm, not this time; that the server, my server, who has nine times now walked straight past my table with an order I’ve mistaken for mine, is actually-finally-certainly approaching me, my table, not with napkins, or a pitcher, or a fun fact to share, but with whatever it is I’ve asked the kitchen to make…

Nah. It’s definitely the nut-free bread. (Which, by the way, might as well be store-bought. Totally mediocre.)

Find Wogies at 39 Greenwich Avenue, between Perry and Charles, and at 44 Trinity Place, between Rector and Edgar. I’ve only been to the former, but I can’t imagine there’d be much variation between the two.

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OTTO Enoteca e Pizzeria

Spaghetti alla carbonara from OTTO Pizzeria e Enoteca

I grew up haunted by the image of Mario Batali. My mom had a bunch of his cookbooks, all plastered with his image, so he—shorts, vest, orange Crocs, and all—had quite the presence in our kitchen. My babysitter, who watched only local news and the Food Network, loved to watch him (and just about every other celebrity chef) on TV. And I, for my part, had my family touring the same high school as one of Batali’s sons, which was how my dad ended up badmouthing Batali’s “look” a mere two feet from a woman who turned out, yes, to be Batali’s wife.

Still, I never thought to look into any of his restaurants—until I stumbled upon this post from 2015, which suggests (nay, states outright) that OTTO is rather allergy-aware. Naturally, I sent them an email. Here’s the meat of the response I received:

There are pinenuts in our Eggplant Caponatina and in our Olive Oil Coppetta (which has a pignoli brittle but can easily be made without that topping). They are also sprinkled on top of our Caprese salad but that can also easily be made without the nuts. We serve walnuts in our Fregola & Stinging Nettle Pesto. We serve almonds in our Escarole & Sunchoke salad but the nuts can be removed from that dish as well. We are very practiced at dealing with allergies and take every precaution to avoid any cross-contamination so the foods that are prepared without nuts (which is the majority of the menu) are completely safe for those with nut allergies.

What an answer. Usually, positive responses take the form of a “yes, you’ll be fine here,” without any information about of whether or how the kitchen handles nuts. But this woman listed every dish I ought to watch out for, and she took a stab at explaining why the rest of the menu ought to be fine for me, too. Sure, “every precaution” is typical vaguebabble; but as a whole, her response was incredibly promising, both for its level of detail and its use of the sort of absolute language (e.g. “completely safe”) most restaurant personnel tend to shy away from. Usually, restaurants refuse to make guarantees, however informal. So when one does—especially in writing—it usually means that the folks in the kitchen really are doing all they can, whatever that may mean, to prevent cross-contamination. So I went ahead and booked a table.

OTTO's Cacio e Pepe pie

As for the restaurant itself, it’s a dark one, decorated only in the tones of sauce: reds, browns, and red-browns. (In other words, there was nothing I could do about the way these photos were doomed to come out.) It’s also enormous, and nearly always packed to the brim, and so nearly always astonishingly loud. On a bad night, it’s club-loud, with shrill voices yowling, screeching, shrieking to be heard over plodding bass lines, booming laughter, clinking glasses, and tables of wine-drunk yuppies who can’t seem to stop hooting, clapping, or—I swear this happened, and under 24 hours ago, too—chanting “drink, drink, drink!” (I’m not being a curmudgeon. I’m 21 years old. I like the loud and the lively. I’m one of the loud and the lively. But the back half of OTTO is, on occasion, unpardonably raucous, and the staff don’t do anything about it, though I’m not sure how much they’d be able to do.)

On a good night, you’ll luck into a table toward the front of the house, where OTTO seems to seat the majority of its don’t-need-to-be-banned-from-public-dining customers. Those nights, you’ll be able to get away with a half-yell—but it’s still too goddamn loud in there, no way around it. Fortunately, though, the food’s good, and the prices are relatively low, and—oh, yeah—the servers know their allergens, and they don’t give me any flak when I ask them to double-check on the safety of my order. So half-yell I do. And on a good night, it’s a small price to pay.

Of the pasta dishes, I can’t really say I have a favorite. They’re different from one another, sure, but no one in particular has been better than any of the others I’ve tried, and they’ve all sort of blurred together in my mind. But I suppose the ones I’ve liked best have been the (seasonal) summer-truffle pasta, the bucatini alla gricia, and the spaghetti alla carbonara (pictured at the top). Truffles are truffles; it’s not as if they call for much evaluation. But I can say that the bucatini alla gricia, made with the most perfect guanciale, is particularly well-balanced, and that the carbonara—my go-to—is resoundingly creamy. Plus, it involves scallions, the greatest of the onions. There’s nothing else I need to say.

But really, all the pastas I’ve tried have been great. The flavors are spot-on, and the portions are big enough—and most are only $13, though they wouldn’t quite feel out of place at $20-plus. There’s just one catch: 30% (or so) of the time, the pasta itself comes a little overcooked. But honestly—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—with these dishes, I often can’t find it in myself to care. Either all the clamor gets to me, or the flavors are just that good. Who’s to say?

OTTO's Fennel & Bottarga pizza from OTTO

As for pizzas, there are almost 20 on the menu—and though I, boring, have only tried a few, I can say with confidence that that most (if not all) are worth an order. The Bianca—not really a pizza, but a flatbread dressed with olive oil and sea salt—is as tasty as it is boring (that is to say, very), and the Otto Lardo—the same thing, but with a few slices of lardo on top—is even better. Salty, oily dough is lovely, especially when it’s got a chew like OTTO’s. Throw some funky lardo on top and it turns into something that feels like a real food.

Of course, OTTO does do actual pizzas, too. Of those, I’m most drawn to the Fennel & Bottarga (pictured immediately above), which is made with fennel, bottarga, tomato, pecorino, and mozzarella. Normally, I hate fennel, but I can actually tolerate this variety. Though I will say: There sure is a lot of it, and very, very little bottarga. Still, it’s a good pie. The crust—always crisp, never burnt—is tastier than your average, and the sauce is just as it should be: present, and savory, and acidic, but not the slightest bit overbearing. None of that sickly-sweet shit. As if I even have to say so.

But those few pies are just the very basics, and there are plenty of other options to play around with. In the mood for clams? Try the Vongole. Can’t get enough cheese? Go with the Quattro Formaggi. Lifelong fan of cacio e pepe? OTTO does a pizza-fied version (pictured second) that’s pretty fun to chew on. The options aren’t endless, but they’re certainly wide. My official advice is to go wild.

Anyway. I really like OTTO—and I’d probably like it even more if I hadn’t discovered it within mere days of finding Osteria Morini, where the pastas are so ridiculously good that they actually manage to hurt my feelings (and, yes, bias me against virtually every other Italian restaurant). OTTO certainly could’ve benefited from that first-safe-Italian-restaurant novelty. But it really is good enough to hold its own, and I have enough sense in me to (try to) override my bias and acknowledge that. The food isn’t life-changing, but it does make me happy. And the noise is tolerable, I guess. If you’re ready for it. Sometimes. Maybe.

Find OTTO at 1 5th Avenue, between 8th and Washington Mews. (Really, though, it’s on 8th, between 5th and University.) But bring earplugs, or noise-cancelling headphones, or a gaggle of your finest LoudBros. Just don’t bring a date—or at least not a date you’d actually want to, you know, hear or be heard by. I bring my parents. They seem to like it.

Best of luck.

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