When someone says a restaurant’s food is better than it needs to be, that’s only half a compliment. Usually they mean the food isn’t great but it could be worse than it is and the crowds would still keep coming because the place has other things like location or view.
Lodi, an Italian cafe that landed in Rockefeller Center towards the end of the summer, is so much better than it needs to be that it’s disorienting. Given the location – opposite the Christmas tree, ice rink and window of the “Today” show set where fans used to jump up and down with handwritten signs for Hoda Kotb and Al Roker – will never want it for customers.
Given its competition — chain bakeries, salad counters and shops selling boxed sandwiches — it could hold its own with efficiency, consistency and mediocrity. Facing a captive audience, Lodi feeds it Italian pastries, long-fermented breads, and understated northern Italian food so good they’d be worth a trip to a deserted part of town.
I tried, but failed, to think of another New York restaurant whose success was almost certain to go as far in the pursuit of quality as Lodi goes. The closest comparison I’ve come up with is Flora Bar, which was by far the best museum cafe in New York during the less than two years of its life at the Met Breuer (which is now the temporary home of the Frick Collection). Like Lodi, Flora Bar was run by the restaurant group of Ignacio Mattos, who also own Estela and Altro Paradiso. The daily kitchen was in the hands of Maxime Pradié, now chef de cuisine at Lodi. But while Flora Bar was much better than it needed to be, it wasn’t in the same league as Lodi.
To understand what Lodi does well, it helps to know what it doesn’t do at all. For starters, you will not have a seat after 8 p.m. So if you want to dine after watching Patti LuPone knock “The Ladies Who Lunch” on the top row of balcony seats of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, that’s not an option.
There aren’t any tables inside either, though there are a dozen or so crouched in the black-canvas fencing of the front porch and, in fine weather, are even more sprawling on Rockefeller Plaza, across from the ‘Today’ show window. This is not a Covid thing. The interior of Lodi, with curves that fuse the art deco architecture of the square with the style of Milanese aperitivo bars and luxury shops, was designed for traffic and turnover. A dozen or so stools — sinewy black legs, indented wooden seats, no backs — face the windows at perimeter counters. In the center of the room is a narrow oval island that functions a bit like those stand-up coffee kiosks in train stations in Italy, where the typical commuter can order an espresso, pay for it, and drink it without stepping foot.
The rest of the space is occupied by display cases. Chief among them is the Pastry Shop, one of the most attractive and rewarding in New York, but not the most lavish. The choice is limited to about half a dozen classics, most understated and not too sweet, in the Italian style that contrasts so sharply with the all-American buttercream grenades sold down the street at Magnolia Bakery.
OK, yes, Lodi’s bombolone is basically a jelly donut, but it kind of isn’t – the raspberry jelly is tart and a little tannic, sharing the hole in the center of the dough with whipped, barely sweet ricotta with a trace of salt.
The flauto al cioccolato is a long square tube of puff pastry filled with dark chocolate that stays a little soft at room temperature, like Nutella; you don’t have to wait for it to melt before you can taste it. Each flauto looks like a miniature loaf of sliced Pullman bread; the illusion of slices is produced by a thin surface layer of laminated dough chopped into filaments about an inch wide. It’s lighthearted, delicate work; in a Disney cartoon it would be done by whistling bluebirds, but it has a purpose. The technique makes the outside of the flauto more fragile than an eggshell.
No simple breakfast I know of, in Midtown or any other neighborhood, can beat a Lodi pastry and coffee. The espresso can be drunk, unsweetened, without wrinkling or grimacing. If you need something a little more hearty in the morning, there are steel cut oats with honey and stewed apples, or a little pink triangle of smoked salmon with toast and a boiled egg in the shell (overcooked the day I had it).
For last month Lodi served breakfast and lunch then closed in the late afternoon. Now that it remains open later, it offers a single menu of sandwiches, salads and hot dishes for lunch and dinner. Some of these are Northern Italian recipes; all have a Northern Italian reticence.
There’s a leaf of savoy loosely draped around starchy, savory rice bound with melted scamorza; lightly caramelized and then moistened with truffle vinaigrette, it is arguably the first stuffed cabbage that I could honestly describe as dainty. Some real refinements have also been made with the brasato, which retains its pink color as slow braising in red wine turns its flavor into something both more and less intense.
The crusts have been removed from the saffron-scented tuna tramezzino, of course, so you can elegantly nibble on the sandwich while serving an afternoon spitz flavored with clementine juice and blood orange amaro. Chicken liver mousse, so creamy it’s almost like a smoothie, is drizzled over small oval toasts as a glaze. The translucent thin chip from the roast skin slipped into the porchetta sandwich and shattered on command, and the pork itself is peppery, infused with garlic, and almost impossibly smooth for a roast.
The last three dishes wouldn’t be as tasty as they are without their bread. For the porchetta and chicken liver crostini sandwich, it’s a long, narrow, crispy oval called the Rustica. The tramezzino is built on slices of a dense, square, spicy bread called pane di riso; what at first feels like sprouted wheat berries embedded in the bread turn out to be grains of fermented rice. A basket at the start of the meal usually contains a few slices of focaccia and a loaf of bread called, modestly, “pane.” The crumb is moist and a little sticky and has a sour, cider taste like Belgian lambic beer. I bought a loaf of bread for home. It became the most interesting thing in my kitchen. Sometimes I would take what was left of the bread from the bag and stand there to admire it.
Louis Volle is the baker who is also responsible for the bread and pastries, both made with flour freshly ground every day by a stone mill in the kitchen. (You can see it buzzing through a window in the square.) Mr. Volle previously helped manage tame and wild yeasts for Blue Hill in Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, NY,
Arcane breads with immensely complex flavors are what we’ve learned to expect at Blue Hill. They’re what we’ve learned not to expect in small, casual cafes that cater to Midtown tourists and office workers. Some of these places are pretty good. Others are gloomy. We may give in and buy lunch from one of them, but we know we’re just markers in the game, custom made before we walk in the door.
The only thing more daunting than a chain that knows how much compromise people will make for convenience is a chef trying to figure it out and missing the mark. I’ve been to some of those places over the years. The spectacle of talented chefs imitating the style of chains is embarrassing.
When everything feels calculated, quality is suspect. That’s why Lodi is confusing. It’s not a perfect restaurant, but it’s needlessly, needlessly excellent. I’m trying to get used to the concept.
What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not getting star ratings.