Nero: Italian Cuisine Meatpacking-Style
One night, a couple weeks back, my boyfriend John had a reason to celebrate. Tired yet looking for some time out on the town, we went looking for a spot that was hip and trendy, yet not pretentious or overdone. We wanted a young crowd in a hoppin’ neighborhood downtown. And thus, I found myself with the difficult task of finding tasty food in the Meatpacking District.
This is surprisingly difficult if you’re planning last minute and have no hope of sneaking into Spice Market, Pastis or Ono. After careful scoping of restaurants in the area (Cafe Cluny seemed too quiet, Fredericks too…steak, Bagatelle too Euro-techno, etc etc), I decided to give Nero, a slinky Italian restaurant, the green light.
In short, I think Nero is in the midst of having an extensive identity crisis – unclear on whether it should focus on food or atmosphere, couples or the clubby crowd, old-school authentic Italian or new school Mediterranean. In an effort to please all, Nero hovers in a gray area, good yet not excellent in any way.
Yet, to my surprise, it wasn’t horrible. Maybe I’m being unfair in assuming that all Meatpacking restaurants are built to shimmer and shine without any focus on the food, yet I have little experience to prove otherwise. The atmosphere at Nero was slightly ‘fabricated,’ with a cliche black-and-white movie screened on a large brick wall, flickering candles on every table, and a ‘plastic’ (yet attractive) wait staff. I mention the staff because I’m convinced they are meant to be part of the decor…
Yet, despite this unauthentic feel, the restaurant was actually very seductive. Large bowls of pasta with rich sauce and melted cheese, platters of meat and fish with heavy sauces, and classic italian antipasti all paired with bottles of red wine from the impressive wine list lent to the oozing romantic feel of the place. The food was rich and filling yet by no means innovative or mind-blowingly delicious. My pasta was over-cooked and I’m still convinced that my vodka sauce came out of a Prego container. It all tasted good because it was drowned in melted cheese, which conveniently masked the flavor of everything else. The whole time I was there, I got the sense that the kitchen was trying too hard to be ‘authentically Italian’ and just way overshot the mark.
For the meatpacking district, the crowd was incredibly normal. Very few pin-thin New York Barbies wandered in and most of the tables were taken up by well-dressed yuppie couples. Older couples with TOURIST stamped across their foreheads peppered the crowd and cougars perched at the bar. I only saw one girl in sequins the whole meal.
All-in-all, Nero was a beautiful (albeit cliche) restaurant with Meatpacking pizzazz and, unfortunately also, Meatpacking District-caliber cuisine. The crowd was unpretentious, the service was friendly and remarkably quick, and the wine list provided some real gems. This is a safe and comfortable standby in a neighborhood known for being a culinary minefield.