Osteria il Paiolo
106 North 6th St. (Berry & Wythe)
Open 7 days a week
By Mary Yeung
A white tablecloth restaurant in the heart of Williamsburg. That is so rare. But chef and owner Alex Palumbo wishes to give his customers an elegant dining experience, although he is aware that this white tablecloth business is scaring away many young ones. He sees young people peeking into the window, spotting the tablecloths, the tasteful artwork, and the nattily dressed waiters, and sort of … freaking out.
“With this economy, everybody is nervous. They don’t want to go into a restaurant and automatically drop 60 bucks,” I explain.
“But they won’t have to,” he says. “My pasta is only $13.50 to $17.50 and my pizza is $10 to $20. They can easily walk out of here $20 a head.”
Since Osteria il Paiolo opened in the summer of 2010, it has gained a loyal following of gourmands who appreciate tablecloths. They come for the refined Italian cooking—dishes like potato gnocchi with lobster ($14), chocolate pappardelle with wild boar ragu (13.50), octopus and potato salad ($14.50), polenta with quail ($12.50), sea bass with black olives and baby fennel (24.50), and rack of lamb and lamb sausages ($25.50).
Alex recently added artisanal pizza, three days a week (Monday to Wednesday). On the weekends the restaurant is busy and brunch is very popular with the locals. In addition to eggs benedict and French toast, the restaurant specializes in Italian brunch that includes pasta, polenta, and Italian sandwiches.
One night, I sampled the tagliatelle alla Bolognese, the classic Italian meat sauce. This is a dish I rarely order in a restaurant, only because I can make a very good version myself. But I’m glad I had it here, because it was a lovely dish. The pasta is housemade, so the tagliatelle has the bounce and chew that make good pasta so addictive. The sauce has a well-balanced rich meat flavor, not too watery, not too thick, and the texture is very velvety. I asked him the secret to that velvety texture, and he just smiled and said it’s a secret. Not being a native New Yorker, he didn’t say the magic words that would have immediately shut down my interrogation. After a few minutes of prompting, he relented and revealed the secret ingredient, but then he swore me to secrecy. Hey, Alex, next time someone pesters you for a secret ingredient, just say, “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”
“With food this good, you should be packed every night,” I say. “Maybe you should lose the tablecloth from Monday to Thursday. Turn this place into a casual pizza and pasta joint for young people.” You know me, I’m forever helpful. He looked at me like I was a crazy person. He is the kind of guy who would sooner lose his shirt than his tablecloths.
Then again, one has to admire a man who is true to his own vision.
Alex came to New York 12 years ago. It was supposed to be a short vacation, but he fell in love with the city and just didn’t go back home. “I came from a small town. I thought New York was amazing! So many people from all over the world. It changed me; it changed the way I look at the world.”
Back home is Verbania, a mountainous region of Piemonte in Northern Italy. It is known for stewed meat, baby goat, wild boar, and polenta dishes. In fact, Il Paiolo means “the copper pot,” a pot that is used to cook polenta back in his hometown. His family is in the restaurant business, so he knew how to cook and how to run an eatery. In New York, because he didn’t speak English, he had to work his way to the top. He started out as a busboy, then a waiter, and eventually became manager of the celebrated, celebrity-packed Italian restaurant, Da Silvano, in the West Village. But it was always his dream to open an authentic Italian restaurant in his own neighborhood.
He is a hands-on chef and does all the shopping himself, driving to Hunts Point two or three times a week to get the freshest fish and produce. “I buy a lot of organic products, and buy only the best seafood. I am roaming the market at two o’clock in the morning, checking out the best stuff,” he says.
Alex and his wife, Amanda, are getting ready for the holidays. They will be open Christmas and New Years’ Eve, and there’ll be special menus. For Christmas Eve, he is offering the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian Christmas tradition. The choices include crab cake, grilled octopus, lobster bisque, branzino al catoccio, risotto al nero diseppia, fancy desserts, and more, The prix fixe is $70 per person (check the restaurant’s website for complete details).
Before I left, he rolled up his sleeves and showed me an arm full of tattoos, as if to say, “See, I am part of the Williamsburg tribe.”
He’s got tattoos, he races motorcycles, he’s got a baby girl named Valentina, he supports local artists by displaying their paintings on the wall, and he lives in Williamsburg. He is only 34 years old. He belongs here, with us, not on some glitzy stretch of Madison Avenue. He just happens to be very attached to his tablecloths. Go check out that sublime Bolognese sauce. It will rock your world.