Oh, that’s not to say that it isn’t a good restaurant. It is. Most of the food I had during my two visits to the Swan’s newest signature restaurant was well prepared, and served by a staff that showed training if not consummate professionalism in an atmosphere that is large and bustling – yes, noisy -- without being frantic, and stylishly modern but decidedly not cozy.
But it’s not the same as the original. I know this because following my two visits to the restaurant in the Swan hotel, I visited Il Mulino in Greenwich Village. It’s a small place with a neighborhood feel. The single dining room is tasteful and sedate and tables are covered with white cloths. In the center of the room is a table with a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano from which the waiter served chunks of the tangy cheese. There were also thin slices of salumi and toasted bread that positively oozed rich olive oil.
The entire Greenwich Village restaurant would fit in the bar area of Il Mulino New York in the Swan hotel. Which is why the word trattoria has been tacked onto the name. It emphasizes a less-upscale experience and removes the technicality of trying to be an exact duplicate.
Taken on its own merits and not as an outpost to an established restaurant, Il Mulino New York Trattoria is a good Italian restaurant. The menu focuses on, but doesn’t mind straying from, the Abruzzo region of Italy and ranges from seafoods of the coast to meats of the mountains, although the food here tends to go a little easy on the spicy-hot peppers that distinguish many of the dishes of Abruzzo.
My guest and I started our meal at the Swan’s Il Mulino with the misto di mare appetizer ($36), a cold platter of seafood for two. Firm, hefty shrimp, delicately tiny clams and sea-salty oysters were arranged beside a spiny whole langostine and a salad of squid, scallops and baby shrimp.
I followed with the pasta fagioli soup ($7), a big bowl of white beans and small pasta tubes in a broth that was slightly more tomatoey than other versions but not in an off-putting way.
I had dentice ($29) for my entrée, a seared red snapper cooked with sweet cherry tomatoes, salty pancetta and pungent garlic with a touch of white wine. The fish was a firm fillet with sweet tasting flesh that went well with the side dish of broccoli rabe.
My companion had the saltimbocca ($33), veal scaloppini sauteed with prosciutto and white wine and sage, served over fresh spinach. The meat was thin and tender and the sauce was tangy and rich.
On another visit my guest and I started with the insaccati misti ($24 for two), an antipasti platter of meats including prosciutto, mortadella and soprassata, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella.
For our primi course, we had half-orders of gnocchi Bolognese ($15) and risotto con funghi ($16). The gnocchi were firm and chewy potato dumplings in an intensely flavored meat sauce. The risotto had the delightful crunch of the arborio rice and the tender chew of the wild mushrooms in a broth that was tinged with truffle essence. Both were delicious.
We should have had the full orders and skipped the secondi. Both the vitello Milanese ($32) and pollo Parmigiana ($28) were disappointing. Both preparations involve pounded and breaded meats, and both were overcooked and hard. Even the brilliant taste of the fresh arugula on top of the veal couldn’t revive the dish.
For dessert, the torta di formaggio ($8) offered a twist on cheesecake, with a more crumbly, less cloying cake. Torta di cioccolati ($8) was a fairly average version of flourless chocolate cake. At the end of the meal, the server brought a tureen to the table and ladled tastes of limoncello into glasses for a sweet digestif.
Il Mulino New York took over the space of another Italian restaurant, Palio. The décor features wood floors and brick walls. Wood-topped tables are set with simple placemats instead of tablecloths. Domed light fictures that look like large heat lamps hang in clusters throughout the rooms. The kitchen is partially exposed, obscured enough so as not to dominate the scene but open enough to be a part of it.
Service was typically cheery although anything but prompt and efficient. The wine list has some wonderful selections that pair well with the food.
Il Mulino New York-Orlando and Il Mulino New York-New York share some similarities in the food – the oil-rich bread, the salumi and an identical pasta fagioli – but there are so many differences that one wonders if there is a reason the two share a name other than to exploit it. It would be a little like opening a chain of concert auditoriums seating thousands under the name La Scala. They could present opera performances, and some of them might be good. But somehow the experience just wouldn’t be the same.