Billy Joel sang about it. Elizabeth Gilbert made it the focus of one-third of her best-selling novel. Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub emoted to the extreme about it in 1996’s Big Night. Over the last century, Italian food has captured the creative consciousness of many an artisan. Chef Jonathan Benno is no exception—the cuisine’s delights and nuances have had a profound effect on his newly bowed Leonelli Taberna in the uberhip Evelyn hotel in NoMad. Fans of Benno from his time helming Lincoln Ristorante may or may not realize he matriculated through other great kitchens as well—at Per Se, Craft, The French Laundry and Gramercy Tavern. All his deft experience comes together for this quirky, original Roman-inspired menu.
Our evening begins with a round shallow bowl of velvety chicken liver pate, Marsala and a layer of crispy pistachio nuts. Three little bread disks with a lovely swirly design charred into their sides accompany the smooth spread. They are the right amount of adorable, but not too precious. Julian, our exceedingly charming waiter and resident menu adviser, recommends the gnocchi alla Romana next, which arrives as one large dumpling filled with rich braised oxtail vaccinara in a cast iron square. Almost as gratifying as the pate, tender meat and vegetables spill out of the flavor-packed bundle.
As I spread the last smidgen of pate on the sphere and dance a little in our booth as I do so—delectable food tends to elicit that response—I look around and realize it must have been no small feat to transform the hotel’s former space (originally built in 1903) into a chic upscale establishment still laid-back enough for passersby to pop in or for bargoers to slide over into the adjoining area and enjoy. Thankfully, Benno and The Evelyn’s team hired Parts and Labor Design, which struck the perfect balance between dapper elegance and casual ease. The shine off of the display of brass lighting fixtures riding up the walls and hanging from the ceiling, the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque glass behind the bar and the highly viewable kitchen make every guest in the room feel like they have the best seat in the house.
Pair that feeling with a sharable plate of frutti di mare—a clean and light mix of shellfish and octopus with beans, lemon and oregano that’s probably been consumed in Italy for centuries—and halfway through dinner you’re feeling nothing short of a VIP.
Having a signature dish can be both a blessing and a curse for a chef. While it’s great to create something that gets people back in the door time and again, take it off the menu and fans get a bit hangry. For Benno, his signature dish-in-the-making might be the lasagna spinach on the Pasta al Forno lineup. I haven’t even spotted it as a must-order, but Julian insists on bringing out the green ribbons of pasta layered between a ground ragu Bolognese and topped in a creamy bechamel sauce. “But I’m not a big fan of lasagna,” I protest. “Trust me,” he says.
The gooey, cheesy, melty comfort food classic wins “it” dish for those not dieting. For New Yorkers watching their waistlines, stick to the frutti di mare—but you’re missing out. A side of trifolati (roasted mushrooms) tops off the parade of plates taking over our small table. Rather than hitting us over the head, the simple, earthy fungi are a final onslaught of umami to finish off before we order dessert. The reason you can’t skip dolce is pastry chef Lindsey Bittner, previously of Le Bernardin and Gramercy Tavern. Her tartuffo, a hazelnut gelato with cherry sorbetto and visciole, will appease any average sweet tooth, sure. However, the truly inspired arborio rice pudding and rhubarb sorbetto was custom-crafted for adventurous sugar hounds who have seen it all and are still searching for the ultimate surprise. Just ask Julian—he’ll tell you.
7 E. 27th St., 212.451.9495
PRICES Small plates, $9-$17; antipasti, $17-$24; pasta and pesce, $22-$26; sharable dishes, $70-$90; sides, $12-$15
HOURS Mon.-Sun., 5-10pm