Happy fall, Brunch with Bearees! As the leaves turn gold, we find ourselves missing our Italian summer travels. However, the world turns on, and there is a plethora of Italian food in New York City, as we’ve discovered over the years. While the seasons are changing, our enthusiasm for adventure has remained strong as ever, and so off we go to Midtown East!
In junior year, one of my flatmates was obsessed with her self-diagnosed gluten allergy, and spent a lot of time exploring the gluten-free scene that has since flourished in New York City. She constantly recommended restaurants to me, although I had to keep explaining that I am allergic to dairy and peanuts, not gluten. Bistango was one of those restaurants, and it wasn’t until a couple years later (after we ran into each other and she mentioned that her gluten allergy was, in fact, completely cured and might never have existed at all) that I had the opportunity to check it out.
The original Bistango is in the Flatiron District, on 3rd Avenue, close to Blue Smoke but there is also a location inside the Kimberly Hotel on the 50th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. It is this location, close to his office on Park Avenue, at which my cousin and I found ourselves on an August afternoon, in the dead heat of a muggy Manhattan summer. The closest subway station would be the 51st Street station on the 6 train, or the Lexington/53rd Station on the E or M trains.
The interior was very trendy East-Side-New-American-hotel-chic, complete with a fish tank, a model airplane hanging from the ceiling, and a hallway lined with (presumably expensive) wine bottles. The seating was elegant and laid out well for the weekday corporate lunch date, if your business colleague happened to be gluten-free but also like Italian food.
The lunch menu was a prix fixe menu, and the waitress was very friendly and happily walked us through the gluten-free options. When we asked her to double check about dairy products, she seemed a little flustered and went to talk to the chef. She immediately brought us the special dairy-free bread, and ensured that the lunch specials were possible to make without dairy and peanuts. I ordered an arugula and fruit salad, and a linguine dish as part of the prix fixe menu. Because Bistango is known for being careful about cross-contamination with gluten, the waitress was confident that the kitchen could be as conscientious about the dairy as well.
The bread was sadly chalky and dry, and not at all crusty or flaky like good Italian bread should be. In addition to its strange texture, it was dense and flavorless, not at all helped by the valiant efforts of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or the hummus provided. We have had some great breads and sadly, for all its boasting about their premium allergy-friendly dining, Bistango did not deliver on the bread.
Next up was the salad, which definitely should have had some strawberries in it, if not candied walnuts or pecans of some sort. It seemed that the kitchen was being extra-extra-cautious because the fruit salad was actually a plate of arugula drenched in more balsamic vinegar. Actually, as many of my coworkers know, this salad is the exact one that I eat almost every day during the summer months, but that is because both arugula and balsamic vinaigrette are remarkably cheap and easy to prepare. Receiving a salad that is identical to the one I could make myself, just on a nicer plate and with a higher price tag was mildly disappointing.
Onto the main entrée and certainly the most satisfying part of the meal: a pasta primavera with fettucine, chicken, bell peppers and tomatoes. The portion was the perfect size for lunch, and the pasta itself was fresh and a little overcooked but not mushy. Usually I hate bell peppers, but for some reason, they were not as overwhelmingly annoying in this dish as they usually are to me. The chicken was well-cooked, not dry and not underdone, and well mixed into the sauce so that it was flavorful as well.
Overall, the entire restaurant had a light, clear ambience, without excess noise or flashy decorations. There might have been a few too many tchotchkes on the wall, but they made for interesting observations and conversations. Although I am not a part of the Park Avenue office life, Bistango seemed a quiet and elegant business lunch scene.
A trip to Bistango cannot compare to pranzo con l’orso in Italy, but if you’re stuck at a business meeting on the East Side, it is a pleasant enough experience. Although the food itself was neither impressive nor spectacular, the experience was largely without incident, which is more than we can say about other dining experiences in the Italian-food-in-New-York-City category. Perhaps the gluten-free dining experience might be better here than at other places, as clearly it was worth mentioning on a semi-weekly basis for an entire school year. As for dairy-and-peanut-free, we feel there are other worthier places, and we look forward to finding more of them!