What's uptown chef Andrew Carmellini doing cooking Italian downtown? The answer is al fresco.
"I've always felt like I've lead a double life, working uptown and living downtown," he said recently, "but I'm really a downtown guy."
Mr. Carmellini garnered great reviews during his six years as chef de cuisine at Cafe Boulud, the very French restaurant on the Upper East Side. Food & Wine magazine called him the best new chef in 2000 and the James Beard Foundation named him the best chef in New York City last year. He left Cafe Boulud in 2005 to join the London-based Marion Abela Restaurant Corporation to work on their American expansion.
Last year, a restaurant space on 26th Street at Madison Avenue came on the market. It was nondescript, with a small galley kitchen in poor repair and a DJ booth in the 100-seat dining room. But the rent was good and it came with a sidewalk space with seats for 100. Mr. Carmellini saw it and thought, al fresco. The result is the restaurant A Voce (Italian for word of mouth), which will open next week.
"I've cooked Italian food most of my life and my first job in New York was at San Dominico," Mr. Carmellini said. He's worked and traveled in Italy, and has the family name to match, so it's not so surprising he's cooking Italian food.
A Voce's menu will be printed daily to update the del mercato specials such as "My Grandmother's" meat ravioli. It begins with antipasti and appetizers ($7-$16) including mozzarella with olive oil and beef crudo. Many of the pastas ($16-$19) are handmade, like the paper-thin two-color farfalle. Entrees like osso bucco and grilled fish ($19-$28) will pair with sides ($7) of fresh vegetables. Pastry chef April Robinson crafts simple desserts ($8) such as green apple basil granite and torrone gelato.
Sommelier Olivier Flosse compiled a wine list of 650-plus bottles, 40% of which are priced under $80. Half the list is Italian, with the rest coming from France and America. The list includes 30 magnums and a double magnum of Mondavi Reserve 1978 ($1,990).
Maitre d' Dante Camara is in charge of a dining room atmosphere that Mr. Carmellini calls "contemporary casual." He defines that as the best service, without being overbear ing. Messrs. Camara, Carmellini, and Flosse worked together for several years at Cafe Boulud in the same roles.
The dining room, designed by Tony Chi, is warm and modern, with American maple floors and leather-topped tables. The DJ booth is gone and the kitchen expanded and renovated. The patio will be landscaped this spring with lemon trees and greenery. "We're going to have an outside bar, plants, gelato," Mr. Carmellini said. "I can't wait; it's going to be great."
It's a promising proposition: A simple, straightforward menu of recognizable dishes, with great service and wines. "We're going for the anti-hook, anti-gimmick approach," Mr. Carmellini said. "It doesn't matter if it's traditional or modern, it's the style and the feeling."
A Voce, 41 Madison Ave. at 26th Street, 212-545-8555.