Like a venerable touring theater director, Laurent Tourondel has mounted many productions over the years on a hundred different stages, although the setting for his latest restaurant, L’Amico, could be better. Casual Italian cooking is the theme of the maestro’s new production (past themes have included burgers, steak, and, as his most devoted fans will recall, the intricate glories of haute seafood), and the room sits off the north end of the lobby of the Eventi Hotel in the Flower District. The new Portuguese restaurant Lupulo happens to sit off the south end, which gives the whole operation an unfortunate food-court feel. L’Amico also borders the east side of the building, which means that on warm evenings, the windows are thrown open to the noisy chaos of Sixth Avenue and you can enjoy the fresh-baked aroma of your wood-fired pizza mingled with traffic fumes emanating from the street.
Thankfully, the quality of said pizza at L’Amico (like the quality of, say, the cod casserole or the grilled sardines at Lupulo) goes a long way toward mitigating these potentially challenging circumstances, and on a dark fall evening, with the windows shut tight and the wood-burning oven emitting pleasing baking smells from the corner of the open kitchen, you may not notice them at all. Tourondel is a Frenchman, but he and his chef de cuisine, Amy Eubanks, imbue their pizza with characteristics of both the New York and Neapolitan styles, which means the pie is a small, civilized size, the soft edges are puffed up in a comforting Neapolitan way, and the toppings are inventively sourced (try the classic soppressata, or the mushroom, or the strangely refreshing combination of shishito peppers, onions, and Esposito sausage), and the crust has a nicely charred New York crunch.
The same kind of skill goes into constructing the crostini (with three kinds of toppings, including peekytoe crab), the antipasti, and the pastas, although, in the custom of rustico Italian establishments everywhere, some of the portion sizes and the bounty of choices can be overwhelming. The veal-and-pork-meatball appetizer is a meal in itself, especially if you choose to complement these little monsters with a helping of yellowtail crudo (brightly flavored with shavings of lime) or a chunk of country toast, which the kitchen spreads with Gorgonzola, slices of roasted pear, and thick ribbons of prosciutto. If you’re still hungry, there are several salads to choose from (try the Brussels sprouts with salsify) and six varieties of ravioli and pasta, all covered with uniformly rich, gut-busting toppings like veal shoulder Bolognese (over the pipe rigate), spicy sausage (the fusilli), and disks of black truffle poured with brown butter (the excellent smoked-ricotta gnudi).
Being a hotel operation, L’Amico is also open for lunch as well as Sunday brunch, so you may want to return another time to the noisy little room to sample the entrées and desserts, several of which are a cut above the usual rustico experience. The poultry dishes I sampled (the pink, crispy-skinned duck breast with farro; the charred, lemony chunks of roast chicken) are textbook examples of the wood-oven-cooking technique, and the fillet of black sea bass (served over a pillow of olive-oil mashed potatoes) looked and tasted like an elegant holdover from one of Tourondel’s grand old seafood productions. Ditto the desserts, in particular a dense, caramel-colored apple-walnut cake, and the scoop of housemade Meyer-lemon gelato, which is folded with blueberries and hidden bits of crunchy meringue and served inside a hollowed-out frozen lemon, atop a little pedestal of ice.
There are few such delicacies available at Jonathan Waxman’s hectic, somewhat haphazard revival of his famous ’80s-era uptown restaurant, Jams, which has reopened, more or less in name only, at the bottom of the 1 Hotel, also on Sixth Avenue, a couple of blocks below Central Park. There’s an impressive façade of vines covering the entrance wall, and the ground-floor space is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows set in posh metal frames. But the décor looks less like a sunny piece of California (Waxman’s famous theme at the original Jams) than like the vaguely utilitarian dining area of a cash-rich internet start-up. The walls are exposed brick, the floors are concrete, and the room is lit by the dim glow of a few rickety-looking filament-bulb chandeliers. This being midtown, much of the energy emanates from the bar area, which tends to fill up during the cocktail hour with a noisy scrum of backslapping salarymen.
Tourondel was a constant presence when I dropped into L’Amico, but one gets the sinking feeling that the venerable and talented Waxman, who runs the fine West Village restaurant Barbuto, has signed his name to this production, then wandered off to tend to his other ventures. My order of salmon-and-crème-fraîche-topped Jams Pancakes looked like a bedraggled, waxen reproduction of this famous dish, and my swordfish entrée would have worked better if the long beans accompanying it weren’t cold. The crackly-skinned, tarragon-flavored Jams Chicken still has some life to it, however, and so does the chef’s famous fried gnocchi, which I enjoyed one evening, with an overcooked Jams Burger, at the bar. The best of the wan, weirdly beige-colored desserts is the flan (flavored with maple when I tried it), and like much of the food, it works better at lunchtime, when the room fills up, like a proper California restaurant, with streams of sunshine.
849 Sixth Ave., at 30th St.; 212-201-4065; lamico.nyc
Open: Dinner nightly; lunch Monday to Saturday; brunch Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $18; entrées, $18 to $29.
Ideal Meal: Brussels-sprout salad, sausage pizza, black sea bass, Meyer-lemon gelato.
Note: If the “ham and egg” is a pizza special, order it.
Scratchpad: The cooking approaches three stars. Minus a star for the room.
1414 Sixth Ave., at 58th St.; 212-703-2007; jamsrestaurant.nyc
Open: Dinner nightly; weekday lunch and weekend brunch.
Prices: Appetizers, $13 to $21; entrées, $21 to $37.
Ideal Meal: Gnocchi with Parmesan, Jams Chicken, flan.
Note: The bar serves a nice roster of old classics, including a very good Sazerac.
Scratchpad: One star for the old Jams favorites, especially at lunch, minus a star for the flat hotel vibe.
*This article appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.