First Impressions: Il Principe

Il Principe front roomAdam and I were a few minutes early for dinner with friends, so, as we’re wont to do, we dissected the restaurant—Il Principe, in the new Hotel Hugo on a locals-only stretch of Greenwich. The front terrace, set into the building’s footprint, is spectacular, among the best outdoor dining downtown. (A fondness for UPS trucks helps.) The dining room opens onto the terrace, for an appealing indoor/outdoor feel. The music was a bit what I call disco-disco, at the perkier, more European end of Top 40, but it was Friday night. And then I launched into a soliloquy about the decor, which I found a relief for not being matte, reclaimed, industrial, and so on. It’s as if the owners realized that there was no point in replicating the look of an old barn when anyone could tell we were in a brand-new building—in fact, why not make it look like a curvaceous yacht? Surfaces gleam, from the walnut paneling to the marble wall to the mirror on the ceiling. And there are white tablecloths! With real white napkins instead of dish towels!

“Cheap table,” Adam said, lifting the tablecloth to prove his point—only to discover that the table wasn’t cheap at all. I think we’re just so conditioned to distrust a place as shiny as this; you can almost always find the cut corners. I wonder…. Are restaurateurs drawn to the industrial, patina-rich look so popular now because it ages well, at least in terms of use? The spiffiness of Il Principe will be harder to maintain.

The chef is Carlo Bigi, formerly of Sant Ambroeus and Casa Lever. On that first visit and a subsequent one, we found the food to be all over the map. The eggplant parmigiana was excellent, a model for that kind of dish, and the mushroom salad went over well. An octopus appetizer was perfectly cooked, but marred with sweet potatoes still wearing a refrigerator’s chill.

Il Principe octopusTwo of the pastas were only passable, one was OK, and two were out-and-out delicious. (I’m speaking, respectively, of the lobster tagliatelle and farro fusilli, the pasta pomodoro, and the nettle agnolotti and a special gnocchi in duck-porcini ragu.) That’s not a great batting average for an Italian restaurant at any price range, but it feels especially disappointing at a place like this, with its smart service, choice of three breads (get the fennel breadsticks), gin and tonic “served table side” (do you have to?), and ice cubes so big you risk breaking your nose if you brave the last drop. I found myself wishing that Il Principe had focused on the basics a bit more before getting grand ideas. For the next few months, on that terrace, much will be forgivable. Winter, however, will be another story.

Il Principe is at 525 Greenwich (between Vandam and Spring), 212-608-1211;

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  1. Enjoyed our dinner but wine list way too pricey to eat there on a regular basis – and we are only a block away!