Wednesday, January 5, 2011


The busy busy bar at Lavo.

by Carol Joynt

The location was the Upper East Side of New York. The night freezing cold and windy. The occasion was dinner with a dear friend. When we discussed where to go I begged for something new. I’d been dining at a lot of “venerables” and craved the experience of a hot new thing, as only New York can dish it up. My friend, Elyse Weiner, said, “I’ve got just the place. We’ll go to Lavo.”

That’s how we arrived at 39 East 58th Street on a Tuesday night, coming in from the frigid air to a bar crowded with body heat, young but not exclusively so, and a large dining room beyond. At first glance the ambience reminded me of Balthazar, but when I looked at the pasta, pizza and meatball menu it was clear this was Balthazar Italiano.

The entrance to Lavo on East 58th between Park and Madison.
The front desk was as efficient as any reception desk at a popular night spot, meaning a cluster of attractive young women, eager to help, but still in job training. The confusion of finding a reservation was handled with a baffled smile until the manager swooshed in and saved the night. He was one of those amiable professionals who long-ago mastered the floor manager’s art of being everywhere at once. I imagine the owners have cloned him or wish they could.

Elyse and I followed him through the crush of bodies at the bar, finding our way into the cavernous dining room and a table up front by the DJ. Though in a bit of a traffic pattern, it was a good place to watch the comings and goings of the patrons—“Gossip Girl” meets “Sex and the City II.” We also got to see lots of food go by, and to hear the music and each other. Any deeper into the room would have put us deeper into the din, though the banquettes around the edges looked appealing and comfortable.

Lavo is the sister restaurant to Tao across the street, and both have a Las Vegas provenance, and Lavo’s basement nightclub is a hub for the boldface crowd and the crowd who love to be in the same room with them. But Elyse and I were there for food.
Checking in at the front desk.
The extensive Lavo menu.
The dining room.
The decor has a French flair but the "Meatball With Sausage Ragu" gives away that it is entirely Italian.
Around the edges of the room are banquettes and...
Comfortable booths.
Waiters in motion.
At Lavo there's a dining room DJ. Details of the handsome floor.
The service bar in the back of the house.
Cocktails before dinner: Old Fashioned on the left, a Pompeii on the right.
We settled into a feast—organized by the manager and chef—that was all about taste, satisfaction and quantity. This is eating large scale. There are no small servings at Lavo. This is where you dine when the body needs sustenance, to feel fed and full. On that score, it delivers. If you end up too fed and full, hit the club and dance it off.

We started slow with cocktails and appetizers. The Tuna Tartare tasted as good as it looked, light and refreshing, with a pleasant balance of yellow fin tuna chunks and mashed avocado. Also at the beginning, Sun Ripened Tomato Bufala Mozzarella, followed by a modified Seafood Plateau Piccolo (by choice more oysters than clams), and Lavo’s signature pizza, which—at 18 inches long—is comparable to an arm or a leg. However, the length makes it perfect for a group of people, all grabbing at once, from one end of the table to the other. Also, while it looked big it was not heavy.
Tuna Tartare with Avocado, Crispy Garlic and Black Olive Dressing, $16.
Crispy Parmigiano Fries with herbs and garlic powder.
The seafood platter ($70 or $125) with pizza on the side. Lavo's 18-inch Margarita Pizza, $18.
Beautiful oysters.
Then, onto some pasta classics: Lasagna, Linguini with White Clams, Chicken and Mushroom Ravioli, Rigatoni Melenzana (tomato, eggplant, Bufala mozzarella). There was an interlude for Chicken Marsala (breast with wild mushrooms, a garlicky aroma from the heavens); and then it was time for our encounter with the item that is the showstopper at Lavo—the giant Kobe meatball.

While it sounds laughable, and its softball size admittedly did prompt some exclamations of “Mama Mia!” we dug in happily and what was left over I took home and winningly cut into some pasta. There are smaller Kobe meatballs on the menu, served with spaghetti, and also Kobe stuffed rice balls. Still, go for the big one. It’s fun and good and travels well. Take a phone photo and send it to your friends having sushi elsewhere.
Elyse Weiner, friend, television producer and great dining companion. Presentation of the meatball.
Mama Mia! The Lavo Kobe Meatball, topped with fresh ricotta, $20.
Lavo's Lasagna.
Linguini with White Clams, $24.
Chicken and Mushroom Ravioli, $25.
Rigatoni Melenzana, $24.
Chicken Marsala, $28.
A normal person might stop eating after these many courses, but my appetite is bottomless and Elyse can eat like a bear (while remaining gazelle thin). What’s another plate or two?

We welcomed dessert, which included an Oreo Zeppole, a platter of double stuffed Oreos accompanied by a malted vanilla milkshake! The Lavo dessert menu offers lighter Gelato and Sorbettos, a fruit plate and biscotti, but the Zeppole is worth a try and certainly another phone shot for those not at the feast. Besides, it’ll get you dancing.
Double stuffed Oreos, also known as Zeppole. Double stuffed Oreo meets malted milkshake.
Inside the double stuffed Oreo.
39 East 58th Street
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