Before you go to a new restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened spots, as well as some of your favorites.
This time out: Vallata in Gramercy, the newest concept from chef Tom Colicchio, which opened in April in the former Craftbar space — ostensibly for a temporary run (but perhaps more). Here’s everything you need to know.
1. Vallata is Colicchio’s first Italian restaurant.
While the Italian American Colicchio admits “there’s always been some Italian influence that creeps into my cooking,” he says, “I just never felt the need to do an Italian restaurant.” That is, until now. Inspired in part by the simple home cooking he was doing for his family during quarantine, he opened Vallata in late April. “Not that I’m saying all Italian food is simple,” he continues. But at Vallata, “we’re literally braising chicken in tomatoes and garlic, onions, peppers, and breaking it apart, and putting it on a plate. And people are loving it.”
After two decades of building his own restaurant mini-empire, and establishing himself as one of America’s leading culinary voices, whether through Top Chef or his frequent advocacy work, Colicchio finally feels comfortable just letting quality ingredients shine in uncomplicated dishes. For instance, with a dish like that braised chicken, “I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it years ago. I would have messed it up somehow by trying to add stuff to it. I guess I’m at the point in my career where I have nothing to prove, and can see what I feel like doing.”
2. The menu is inspired by Roman trattorias…
While the restaurant is named after the Campania town from which Colicchio’s father’s family hails, the menu’s regional focus aims further north, guided by what Colicchio calls the “straightforward cooking” of Roman trattorias. Again, that braised chicken, but also cacio e pepe, pasta amatriciana, and raw shaved artichokes with mint and pecorino. Colicchio (who’s been in the kitchen since opening) and Bryan Hunt, director of Crafted Hospitality culinary operations, focus on highlighting hyperseasonal ingredients from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket and from local farms.
As of this moment, that means lots of spring greens and vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, peas, ramps. “Although you won’t find ramps in Italian cooking,” Colicchio says, he’s doing a spaghetti dish with greens and ramps, topped with shaved bottarga. It’s currently one of his favorite dishes, along with a cod poached in a simple vegetable broth made with fennel, garlic, parsley, leeks, and yes, ramps.
Oh, Colicchio also cites a current customer favorite that’s decidedly not vegetable-forward: the Cannoli Bombolone dessert, which is a bombolone, or Italian donut, stuffed with a ricotta mascarpone cannoli filling and sprinkled with chocolate.
3. … while the space is brighter now, and homey.
Before the pandemic, Colicchio and his team had just finished renovations on the private dining room at Craft, his flagship Manhattan restaurant (which previously was the home of Craftbar, its more casual counterpart).
“We built a new bar, we put new flooring down, new lighting, redid the kitchen,” Colicchio says. The changes, which included lighter oak flooring and an open kitchen, served to brighten up the room, which seats 30. “The space has a light feel to it,” Colicchio says. “It feels very residential, and that was by design. I wanted it to feel like home.”
4. Don’t sleep on the beer list.
Like the food, the drink choices are unpretentious, focused on spritzes, amaro-based cocktails, and a few twists on the Negroni, such as the Villa, with basil and mint-infused gin, Suze, and vermouth bianco. The compact wine list highlights small Italian producers, and even includes a fiano from Avellino, the Colicchio family’s home region (specifically. the Colli di Lapio from Clelia Romano).
But, he notes, the Italian beer list is especially worth a look. “Right now, some of the most exciting beers out there are Italian beers,” he says.“There’s a whole craft beer movement going on in Italy that’s really fantastic.” Some of the more intriguing options include a wild sour from Turin-based brewer LoverBeer, and a pink peppercorn IPA from Almond22, a microbrewery in the hill town of Pescara, Abruzzo.
5. Don’t call it a pop-up, exactly.
When Vallata opened, Colicchio envisioned the concept running until September. Now, he says, “There’s a good chance it’s going to stay a restaurant.”
Currently it’s open for dinner only on Wednesday through Saturday, partially because of staffing difficulties, also because the room is still being used for private parties. But Colicchio can imagine adding Italian deli sandwiches to a lunch menu, and eventually starting breakfast, becoming “a coffee bar where you get an espresso and something to start your day.”
As more and more people are vaccinated and the city springs back to life, he says, “I think people are looking for a friendly place where they know they’re going to get a good meal and they can see other people enjoying themselves and be social again.”