With its staid and sophisticated décor, an elegant staff to match and flawlessly executed Northern Italian cuisine, Nello has been attracting well-heeled Upper East Siders and more than a few celebrities ever since the restaurant flung open its doors in 1991.
Late summer roses are practically everywhere you look in the dining room. The ivory walls are hung with enlarged black-and-white Karen Blixen photographs of African wildlife. Blixen, whose penname was Isak Dinesen, was most famous for writing Out of Africa, but I’ve always preferred her Babette’s Feast, which eventually became the best movie ever made about a meal. She also had quite a brilliant, quietly dignified photographic eye, and gazing at her expansive work during your meal is one of the many pleasures at Nello.
When the front of the restaurant is open, which it is if the weather is clement, the dining room can be fairly loud, especially if there’s a lot of traffic on Madison Avenue. But as the shadows lengthen, the street and the room quiet down.
At these unbridled prices, you expect high quality, and you generally get it. Executive chef/owner Nello Balan and his expert kitchen staff are obviously in love with Tuscany cooking. I don’t know anyone who isn’t: such direct methods of coaxing maximal flavors from prime ingredients naturally elicit respect and adoration.
The wine list is also heavily Italian, with some terrific French bottles. Sixteen wines are available by the glass. A Chassagne-Montrachet Chardonnay from 2006 is surprisingly smoky and supremely smooth.
A delicately dressed mesclun salad with slices of roasted yellow and red beets is finished with a fat disc of warm baked chevre dusted with pepper and herbs.
For carpaccio con Palmito, the entire floor of an entrée plate is covered with flattened ruby beef tenderloin, decorated with ripe avocado slivers, all given a good dribbling of fragrant lemon white truffle oil.
A musky roasted and sufficiently garlicky Portobello mushroom cap is so juicy that you need to use a steak knife instead of a fork to keep it from squirting you.
You can tell a lot about a kitchen’s mettle by its Bolognese sauce, and Nello’s is right up there with the best. Served piping hot on achingly fresh pappardelle, ground beef and veal are both used, to give the tomato ragù just the right balance of heft and lightness.
Hearty wild mushroom risotto is also piping hot, with just enough butter and garlic to support the plentiful earthy mushrooms. The stewed and judiciously stirred Arborio rice achieves the perfect density and just the right chew.
Veal Milanese is one of my favorite dishes, with such marvelous contrasts in textures and flavors and even temperatures among the cool arugula, sliced tomatoes and tender veal, breaded and pounded into compliance so that the chop covers the entire plate. The quarter-inch veal is absolutely fork-tender.
We finished with a flaky and creamy four-layer Napoleon with ripe black raspberries, and an unusually fluffy crème brûlée with an unusually dark “brûlée” that was nonetheless not at all bitter.
It’s quite easy to see why such glamorous people flock to this see-and-be-seen place. Make it your destination when your next very special occasion arises.
696 Madison Ave.
Between 62nd and 63rd streets
Entrées: $44 to $60
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