Dinner at Bocce Bar got off to a bumpy start.
A quoted 45-minute wait stretched into two hours. A glass of wine came with a sticker affixed to the bowl. My dining companions grew feisty.
Seated at last, we saw a switch flip. Food began pouring out of the kitchen and onto our table. Freebies, delivered by managers. “The chef would like you to try this,” they said. “Compliments of the kitchen.”
Were they overcompensating for the wait or, more likely, did they realize a critic was in the house?
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Unfortunately for this midtown Italian newcomer, even free food must be prepared well. Bocce Bar’s cooks use a heavy hand with salt.
Run by chef-partner Timon Balloo (Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill) and the SushiSamba restaurant group, Bocce Bar is an invitingly rustic space on the site of the shuttered Sustain. Earthy, foresty aromas from a wood-burning oven fill the dining room and are accented by vases of fresh rosemary on each table. Outside, a full-size bocce court invites diners to hang out with after-dinner pulls of espresso.
Balloo’s menu succeeds when it follows the restaurant’s rustic, scaled-down decor. Dishes with the fewest ingredients, properly seasoned and cooked, were the highlights of my visits.
Artichokes, breaded in coarse semolina and fried, are plated with a smear of grainy mustard aioli, which gave the crispy chokes an extra burst of tang. Buffalo-milk ricotta topped with grated black winter truffles and a chicken-liver/duck-liver pâté were standouts on Bocce Bar’s cheese and charcuterie boards.
Green Sicilian olives stuffed with fennel-flecked sausage, fried and served with a tomato-red pepper dipping sauce, were one-bite wonders. The slow-building heat of a chile-spiked tomato broth kept a bowl of Maine lobster linguine satisfying from start to finish.
Bocce Bar rolls off course when the kitchen muddles together too many elements.
Sardinian-style gnocchetti, one of the comped dishes, was a too-salty, undercooked brown mess of guanciale (cured pork jowl), chicken livers and cockscomb.
Guanciale also made an appearance on a pizza special during a lunch visit. The cured meat makes an excellent pizza topping when it’s thinly sliced and melted to the point of translucence. Bocce Bar, however, drowned out its flavor by lumping on artichokes, olives, pecorino and basil. Guanciale plus olives plus pecorino equaled a briny bomb of a pie.
Other dishes seemed to lack the kind of finesse that is necessary at Bocce Bar’s price points.
A $14 plate of carrots, roasted in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven, arrived at our table cooked to near oblivion — limp, salty and several shades darker than the gorgeous ones in the photographs that accompany this review. A $30 hunk of braised short rib was sufficiently fork-tender, but, again, highly salted and with a one-note onion flavor reminiscent of pot roast.
Half a roasted branzino was too saline to finish, and grains of salt that visibly coated a seafood salad could be felt between the teeth in every bite. My enjoyment of orecchietti with slow-cooked duck sauce was heightened because the sweetness of its roasted butternut squash provided a reprieve from all the other sodium-laden plates.
Pastry chef Jason Morale deserves credit for finishing diners’ experiences on a sweet note. His crunchy, cigar-size cannoli are served over warm, jammy strawberries with a scoop of aged-balsamic gelato. His tiramisu, reconstructed in the shape of a bocce ball and served with espresso gelato, is a playful, well-executed twist on the classic.
Surly bar service aside, Bocce Bar’s servers are convivial and on the ball, and several of them are authentically Italian.
Bocce Bar has the potential to be Midtown’s next dining destination. But too many of its dishes need to be desalinated or reworked before it can be a restaurant where I would wait two hours for a table.
Follow @EvanBenn on Twitter.