Nello is a posh Italian restaurant on the poshest stretch of Madison Avenue, a clubhouse of sorts for the well-to-do. Former owner Nello Balan was the center of its universe since he first opened it in 1992, but last April he left to work on a different project and left the restaurant in the hands of new ownership. I jumped at the opportunity to dine there at the invitation of the restaurant.
First things first: Nello is expensive. It very well might be the most expensive à la carte Italian restaurant in the city. A bowl of minestrone soup is $23, prosciutto with honeydew melon is $39, pappardelle Bolognese is $44 (It’s only $24 at Babbo), veal milanesa is $62, and grilled lamb chops are $64. If you choose to dine, here, be ready to spend a lot of money.
That said, this is a city that’s full of very expensive restaurants. Most of those restaurants serve tasting menus, and most of them serve dishes that were invented by the chef in the kitchen, possibly to highlight what’s in season. Nello doesn’t serve a tasting menu, and the lengthy menu rarely changes and is full of traditional Italian dishes that aren’t breaking new culinary ground. However (and this is a big however), the quality of the dishes that we sampled was superb, service was spectacular and surprisingly warm, and the dining room is comfortable and well-appointed.
If given the opportunity to eat truffles, you eat truffles, and Nello definitely gives you that opportunity. An appetizer of thinly sliced beef carpaccio was drizzled with olive oil and topped with a mound of shaved black truffles, and it was delicious and about as opulent as it gets. A bowl of fresh-made tagliolini with butter, truffle oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and black truffle sells for $100, and Sam Sifton was absolutely right when he called it the restaurant’s best dish. Sans truffles, a lobster salad looked like it contained a whole lobster’s worth of meat and was seasoned with just the right amount of lemon and olive oil. A huge veal chop was tender and perfectly cooked, crispy and caramelized on the outside and served with a pile of well-seasoned roasted mushrooms. Those grilled lamb chops were pounded thin but still cooked to a perfect medium-rare while given a nice crust on the grill, and the au gratin potatoes they were served with were creamy but not overwhelmingly rich. Every item that came out of the kitchen was seasoned perfectly and cooked with attention to detail. If there were any flaws, we couldn’t find them.
Those who choose to dine at Nello just need to know what they’re getting into. Because it’s an unassuming-looking restaurant, it’s easy to sit down and order drinks before realizing just how expensive it is. But if you’re prepared to spend as much at Nello as you would at, say, Del Posto, then you won’t be in for as much of a sticker shock. You do in fact get what you pay for at Nello: flawlessly-rendered versions of Italian classics, a white tablecloth fine-dining experience, top-notch people-watching, and a meal you’re not likely to soon forget.