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Big, beautiful Cafe Carmellini is NYC’s most delightful new restaurant — melding the glam Gilded Age & go-go 1980s

Big, beautiful and booming Cafe Carmellini is the city’s most delightful, crowd-pleasing new restaurant in ages.

It brings back the joyful New York before Covid-19, illegal pot shops and the migrant invasion.

It’s a miraculous marriage of the19th Century Gilded Age and Wall Street’s junk-bond era, but without 1880s social snobbery or 1980s excess.

The brasserie swirls nightly with merry-making couples, families and groups of friends dining beneath a soaring, forty-foot-high ceiling.

Its Italian- and French-influenced menu is pricey — what isn’t these days? — but accessible thanks to its a la carte format. It’s so popular, it now serves dinner seven nights a week after a five-nights launch period. Lunch is set to start in about a month.

Veal tongue castelluccio ($23) is a classic Umbrian dish. Lentils from the Castelluccio region lay beneath the veal, which is “cured as you would with prosciutto and then very slowly poached,” chef/partner Carmellini explained. The process yields the most supple tongue I have ever had, at once slightly gamy and sweet.

Shrimp colonnata ($28), on the other hand, “is a bit of a made-up dish,” Carmellini chuckled. Named for his family’s hometown in Tuscany, the wild shrimp are served with Tuscan beans mingled with Bergamot orange juice and finished with rich, fatty lardo di Colonnata from the region’s marble caves. The citrus perfectly tempers the richness.

The Italian-and-French menu includes dishes such as Crab mille-feuille. Stefano Giovannini
The Italian-and-French menu includes dishes such as Crab mille-feuille. Stefano Giovannini
Cafe Carmellini is a miraculous marriage of the19th Century Gilded Age and Wall Street’s junk-bond era, but without 1880s social snobbery or 1980s excess. Stefano Giovannini
Cafe Carmellini is a miraculous marriage of the19th Century Gilded Age and Wall Street’s junk-bond era, but without 1880s social snobbery or 1980s excess. Stefano Giovannini

There are boldly conceived pastas such as “duck duck tortellini” ($35), the meat glazed in orange duck jus and light foie gras sauce and finished with mosto coto, a grape juice reduction.

But, one of the most popular dishes is straight out of Carmellini’s French-trained playbook: black bass forestiere ($52), the fish steamed with fresh yuzu and wild mushrooms and served in a soul-satisfying mushroom truffle sauce.

Some of the formally-clad floor team are still learning the “fine-dining” drill,  as when they over- or under-describe dishes. But their warmth makes up for it.

One of the most popular dishes is straight out of Carmellini’s French-trained playbook: black bass forestiere ($52), the fish steamed with fresh yuzu and wild mushrooms and served in a soul-satisfying mushroom truffle sauce. Stefano Giovannini
One of the most popular dishes is straight out of Carmellini’s French-trained playbook: black bass forestiere ($52), the fish steamed with fresh yuzu and wild mushrooms and served in a soul-satisfying mushroom truffle sauce. Stefano Giovannini
There are boldly conceived pastas such as “duck duck tortellini” ($35). Stefano Giovannini
There are boldly conceived pastas such as “duck duck tortellini” ($35). Stefano Giovannini

The Martin Brudnizki Design Studio makes the NoMad room seem much larger than its 105 seats, some of which are on a sexy mezzanine. It offers a great view of the floor and a pair of remarkably lifelike sculpted “trees.”

Tables, booths and banquettes upholstered in deep blue shades — all with white tablecloths — are spaced just far enough apart to keep conversations private while still generating a buzz.

Women in Chanel share the scene with those in H&M crop tops and leggings. The guys’ attire is equally democratic. Carmellini, echoing many restaurateurs’ grudging acceptance of reality, said, “I’d prefer a dress code, but … ”

The duck tortellini has a light foie gras sauce and is finished with mosto coto, a grape juice reduction.<br> Stefano Giovannini
The duck tortellini has a light foie gras sauce and is finished with mosto coto, a grape juice reduction.
Stefano Giovannini

Carmellini and partners Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom are known for places such as Locanda Verde, The Dutch, Lafayette and Carne Mare. But Carmellini, who made his bones at the original Cafe Boulud in the 1990s, wanted to make an even bigger splash with his own “signature” restaurant that would mark a return to “fine dining.”

It began when Carmellini and his team, hunting for a suitable dramatic venue, “walked into the crumbling old building that 250 Fifth Avenue was in 2017,” he said. By that time, owner Alex Ohebshalom’s family was deep into a restoration of the early 1900s mansion — originally designed by McKim, Mead & White — which they were converting to a hotel while also building a new hotel tower next door.

“Alex was a fan of my restaurants. They wanted a high-touch restaurant and asked me if I wanted one with my name on it,” Carmellini recalled.

Carmellini (not pictured) wanted his own “signature” restaurant that would mark a return to “fine dining.” Stefano Giovannini
Carmellini (not pictured) wanted his own “signature” restaurant that would mark a return to “fine dining.” Stefano Giovannini

We’re lucky he said yes.

When my friend took his daughter there for a celebration, the maitre’ d gave them a great corner table and they had a lovely time. It wasn’t a birthday but merely a dinner for the high schooler’s straight-A’s.

It’s no wonder why so many New Yorkers are giving the restaurant straight-A’s, too.