Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Grotta Azurra

177 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10013
(212) 925-8775

I first visited this place about 20 years ago when it was originally owned by the Davino family and the entrance was steps down from the sidewalk, blue tiles along the wall leading you down to a door that seemed to hold a secret behind it: the blue grotto.
Once a favorite hangout of Enrico Caruso, Frank Sinatra, and the "Rat Pack", this restaurant which was closed for several years, reopened under the new ownership of a family cousin who kept the name and now has become a tourist trap. A 20% gratuity is added to ALL tables.

The old Italian waiters that used to welcome you into the restaurant with open arms, a smile, and a "Buona Sera" have been replaced by quiet, young, Mexican waitstaff that look at you with blank expressions and avoid you like you are the INS.

My dining partner and I walked into the new entrance located above ground and stood by the bar waiting for someone to approach us to be seated. A quick visual survey of the room showed nothing Italian about the place (apparently upstairs is the French restaurant Patois). None of the staff gave us a look over or asked if we could be helped so we wandered farther in and it was only then that an elderly gentleman asked if we were a table of two.

We were sat at a small table in the middle of the room which they called the "Patois private dining room" and the fellow diners around us were all French, German, and American tourists. Not a single Italian in this famous place in the heart of Little Italy.
The tables and chairs are so close together that you wind up getting bumped and jostled by other diners and staff, you feel like you're in a pinball machine.

There were 5 other tables besides ours and the 2 waiters in our room seemed like they could not handle anything. Several customers from other tables were trying to get the waitstaff's attention for water refills, questions about the menu, and drinks but they seemed to have disappeared from the floor, knowing that no matter how poor of the service they give, you will still pay the 20% gratuity that is in the final bill.

One waiter (Perez) finally approached us and we decided to choose the lunch pre-fixe ($9.95) of a pasta dish and entree. My dining companion asked for a diet coke and I a sparkling water with twist of lemon. We waited for 5 minutes before he reappeared with just a glass of coke (no lemon garnish) and filled our streaky water glasses (proof that they didn't change the water in the dishwasher). I had to remind him of my sparkling water and then he brought over a glass of club soda with a splash of bottled lemon juice. I guess they couldn't afford fresh lemons in this place.

My first course finally arrived. It was a small plate of Rigatoni alla Vodka which the waiter then proceeded to toss spoons of grated Parmesan cheese on top without first asking me. The pasta was al dente, but the sauce a bit dry (as if the plate was sitting too long under the warmer waiting for it to be brought to me) and lacking the bite of vodka. I doubt that they even put vodka in the sauce as I have had better. The garnish of paprika and chopped parsley around the edge of the plates screamed amateur. My companion's Spaghetti Bolognese was nothing spectacular either. Although it was lunch, portion sizes in Italian restaurants are normally larger. They state a $4 fee if you are sharing a plate. Sharing a plate??? These portion sizes that came out would make a Nonna shake her head and bite her tongue instead of saying, "Abbondanza!"

Shortly after we finished the first course, the main plate came out. My companion's Chicken Parmesan was small as was my Chicken Marsala, it looked like they used just the chicken tender instead of the whole chicken breast. I was surprised that the chicken was the same size and width of my fork! Both dishes came out with a roasted red potato cut in half and several large broccoli florets that were so gently blanched, they were practically still raw. Again, the plates were decorated with paprika and chopped parsley.

The inattentive waiter finally came over to bus the plates as my companion stood up to go to the bathroom (what, you thought we were going to dine and run?) and asked if we wanted anything else. I quickly asked for the bill and whipped out my credit card. Not even a thank you and a smile from the waiter as he swooped in to take the check after I signed and closed the checkbook.

I had returned to this infamous place hoping that the new incarnation would still have the old charm but sadly, no. I will not be returning here. I want to remember the good old Grotta Azurra, not this pale shadow. Even my Italian dining companion said that the food was diner quality and not worthy of the name Grotta Azura.
I wonder what Frank Sinatra would say of the place if he were still around. Yes, that's Sinatra playing on the website's music player. He'd probably turn over in his grave if he knew how bad his favorite haunt has turned into.
There ARE some dishes still on the menu from the original days.
You can view the lunch/dinner menu here.

The original subterranean entrance to The Grotta Azurra. It is now gated and padlocked.

The new street level entrance which is also the French restaurant, Patois.

The other entrance which still bears the name, Patois. Grotta Azurra's other original entrance is below to the right and is also gated and padlocked.

My first course of Rigatoni Alla Vodka. Waiter douses grated Parmesan cheese all over it before asking.

I asked for lemon with my sparkling water and I get a splash of reconstituted lemon juice instead.

My second course of Chicken Marsala. Notice the same plate decoration of paprika and chopped parsley along with the waiter's smudged thumbprint.

The ubiquitous garnish of paprika and chopped parsley. I didn't order dessert but I wouldn't be surprised if the plate was also garnished like this.

Seems like the prep staff forgot to cut the broccoli florets human "bite-sized".

The chicken used in the dishes seem more like a tender rather than a breast. It's smaller than my fork.

Grotta Azzurra on Urbanspoon

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