While it’s become glaringly obvious that the Brunch with Bear team seems to be obsessed with Italian restaurants—in fact, blogging about them almost exclusively—you ought to know that I love Rome. I love the city, I love the symbolism, I love the stories. The story of the founding of Rome is a particularly peculiar incident. It more or less goes like this:
Once upon a time, a Vestal Virgin, named Rhea Silvia, becomes pregnant with the twin sons of Mars or Hercules or some other god-like figure. Everyone ostracizes her and she gets sentenced to death. The twins’ uncle, Amulius, who happens to be an evil king, orders the shameful twins to be killed. The servant obeys, but as he sees the twins, his heart melts and he takes mercy upon them by putting them in a river. A she-wolf (lupa) finds them, nurses them, and then a shepherd finds and adopts the twins as his own children. The twins, Romulus and Remus, grow up, fight, the norm. Then Romulus kills Remus over some personal space issues. Romulus founds a city; he names it Rome, after himself. (Naturally.)
I personally think that this story, like many a story in Ancient Rome, is crazy. What I want to know is: Why did the servant think putting babies in a river was a good idea? What kind of uncle lets his adorable baby nephews die? Why would a wolf nurse human babies? However, I still think the story says a good deal about Rome. The Romans had a superiority complex that let them ignore the fact that their founding father was fratricidal, and that the lupa was more likely a meretrix than an actual wolf.
As a Classics minor, I still hear this story a lot, even though it is crazy. Classics people like to use the story to talk about its symbolism and what it says about Rome. How the son of Mars himself founded the city. How Rome came from a place of resilience and perseverance. How the Roman Empire was nurtured by the animals of the land; in particular, how Rome grew in the han—er, paws—of one very special lupa. It is this lupa, a nurturing mother of the idyllic Italian countryside, that inspired Lupa, Mario Batali’s divine-as-Mars eatery in SoHo.
Lupa is actually slightly north of Houston, on Thompson Street just under Bleecker. The nearest subway stations are Houston Street on the 1 train or Spring Street on the C and E trains from the west side, and Bleecker Street on the 6 train or Broadway-Lafayette on the B, D, F, or M trains from the east side. True to SoHo fashion, Lupa is a bit of a walk from the subway, no matter which train you take.
As they say in Ancient Rome, cave: Lupa has an incredibly long wait time, so either snag a reservation in advance or be prepared to do a little SoHo exploring. We waited a significant amount of time (read: over an hour) on a particularly humid summer day, and finally managed to get seats at the bar. I went with only two other people, so it was easy to sit and converse even though we were in a straight line. If you are not opposed, I highly recommend sitting at the bar, if just for the people-watching opportunities alone. The bartender was instantly another new best friend, and his constant presence also meant consistent quality service.
The interior of Lupa is all dim-lighting and dark wood furniture; the ambience is simultaneously warm and inviting Italian kitchen and cool and indifferent SoHo hipsterism. It was pretty loud inside the restaurant, but not unbearable. I’ve heard that red is a color for restaurants, because it supposedly makes people hungry. We were already hungry when we got to Lupa, so I don’t know if the walls were very helpful.
The bread at Italian restaurants is always iffy; true Italian bread should have no dairy, but the contaminant culture of the States often induces a lot of “two-percent or less of the following” and so forth. Lupa knows this, and as soon as I asked about the bread ingredients, they immediately brought out an entirely fresh plate of bread, special for me. I even got my own olive oil. I’m not sure if I’ve ever made this clear, but I adore bread. Lupa was already getting bonus points for atmosphere, and now bread? The Romans would say this was a good omen.
The menu is a plethora of delicious-sounding Italian words, and we had a lot of trouble deciding. We split an appetizer of some sort of squab dish, and ordered three entreés: the saltimbocca, the bucatini all’ amatriciana, and the crispy duck agrodulce. We asked for all the dishes to be made allergy-friendly, and Lupa was more happy to do so. As a result, the three of us were able to sample plates family-style and savor the flavors of each dish.
The squab was delicate and delicious, and we picked it apart in minutes. Even the greens were delicious, a very rare trait in appetizers; as a result we were really excited for our main food. Squab is like Cornish game hen, which is one of those foods that I feel like people only eat at Thanksgiving or fancy restaurants. Lupa is a very fancy restaurant.
The bowl of pasta was hearty, al dente and the noodles were much shorter than I expected them to be. Everything was spicy and tomato-y and the meat was like a very thick and spicy bacon. This dish was easy to share, because spoonfuls of noodles could be passed from plate to plate.
The saltimbocca looked like a really gourmet hamburger patty and was just as juicy and tender as a perfect burger should be. However, the texture was smoother and each bite was soft and succulent. Saltimbocca means “jumps in the mouth” Italiano, as our waiter/bartender told us and that description definitely describes the zeal with which we ate it. (Apologies that the picture is a little blurry, but low lighting at Lupa.) This dish was also easy to divide amongst ourselves.
The presentation award goes to the duck, which was every bit as delicious as it looked. The flavor was reminiscent of the famous Peking duck style of cooking, but without the hoisin sauce and wrappers customary to the Chinese delicacy. The extra greens and vegetables gave the dish a particularly rustic accent. Because of the bone, the duck was not as easy to share, but that didn’t stop us one bit!
A night at Lupa is a night of laughter and love, and the bartender even commented on our high spirits as we gloriously savored every bite of food and every bit of each other’s company. He didn’t even blink when Bear made an appearance at the bar. I guess when your restaurant is named after a wolf, bears and other forest animals are not likely to faze to your staff.
I enjoyed the meal so much that I hardly noticed the other trendy, classy, and probably wealthy other diners. Lupa’s prices definitely qualify as one of the more—if not the most—expensive Brunch with Bear meals we’ve ever done. (Lucky for Bear that he never pays for anything.) However, the food quality, atmosphere, service, and accommodations give Lupa all those gold stars that factor into value. While the prices keep me from dining solo there anytime soon, I definitely can’t wait to return to Lupa.