Like a treasure map in an old movie it was tattered and frayed and the rest of the place was well past its glory days. Everyone seemed from another time and the bustling world outside had somehow left them all behind.
That's how I felt as I sat down to dinner in Manhattan's venerable Barbetta Restaurant, which passed its 100th birthday in 2006. The once regal dining room now seems a bit frumpy and worn. Like a Grand Dame trying to still play the femme fatale in her old age, Barbetta's age is not disguised by all the makeup. However, hidden under the stodgy and slightly tattered surroundings are some real treasures. First is the food, which is well executed traditional Piemontese cuisine. The food is well made country cooking, which however good, seems out of place with all the tuxedoed waiters and formal service. What's important here is that the cooking is solid because the main reason to eat here is the treasure map that is presented when you arrive at your table: the wine list.
If you love the wonders of Barolo and Barbaresco this wine list will almost bring you to tears. The thick, if slightly worn tome, is filled with page after page of deep verticals from the finest producers of the Langhe zone. This is simply a stunning collection of Baroli and Barbaresci that exceeds many (if not all) of the restaurants around Alba itself. On top of this, the prices are not only fair, but outright bargains considering that you are dining on Restaurant Row in Mid-Town Manhattan. The only downside of this list is that it comes with a bored, grouchy sommelier whose main claim to the job seems to be that he was born somewhere in Piemonte. However, the quality of the wine list alone will overwhelm all of Barbetta's negatives for nebbiolo lovers.
My wine selection for the evening was the stunning, classic 1995 Marcarini Barolo Brunate, which was priced under $100, an almost unbelievable value at any restaurant in the United States, is an amazing value by Manhattan standards. While there was a full range of the great vintages from 1996 on, I chose this 1995 over the more famous years as I knew it would be more ready to drink. I have been fortunate to enjoy the 95 Brunate many times over the years and it has never disappointed and is now finally reaching maturity. The aromas are fleetingly intense with a delicate lacework of fragrances that engage both the mind and body, this is nebbiolo at its hauntingly powerful best. Lean and grippingly brilliant on the palate with layer after layer of complex dark fruit, black truffle, burnt orange spices and lilting wild flowers riding on the firm, but not bitter tannins. Wines like this are more experiences than a drink.
Barbetta is a veritable treasure chest for nebbiolo aficionados.