I was just a block away, walking briskly through the crowds that swarmed 13th Street despite the biting winter chill, when a text from my dinner companion arrived: "We're here. But it's going to be a 30-minute wait."
No surprise. Zavino has been jammed since the tiny Neapolitan pizzeria opened on its Midtown Village corner in 2010. The notion that its sophisticated new wine-bar sibling across Sansom Street, Tredici Enoteca, might also be busy is expected. Of course, it doesn't take reservations.
So when I parted the heavy gray velvet curtains that cloistered its entrance from the cold, the tony hive of activity inside was much as I anticipated - the gleaming marble bar flanked by frosty wine bottles and oysters on ice, with a glam crowd in strappy black dresses and crisply pressed shirts surging around its edges en masse.
What wasn't expected? The hostess took one look at me and immediately said: "Table for three? Sure, follow me!"
"What, am I a peasant?!" said my "30-minute-wait" guest as we headed past the raw bar and wood-slat booths beside the front windows to a cloistered room in back. Had I just received the special treatment of a recognized critic and inadvertently hopscotched the line?
I naively doubted it . . . until my next visit, when I sat waiting alone at a back table for several minutes before finally texting my uncharacteristically late guests to see where they were. Turns out they were actually inside Tredici - cooling their heels with a "30-minute-wait" edict despite the fact that there were open tables and the hostess knew I was already waiting for two. Not a good start.
The reflex to make guests automatically pause in the bar is an old-school ruse to pad drink tabs. But it's unbecoming for a new place that has some genuine virtues and most of its other points down pat, including warm and well-informed servers who are able guides to the extensive wine list and menu. Tredici is such a good-looking place, with herringbone wood floors and the same transparent bookshelves framing its edges - a signature look at Zavino's University City location. So it promises to be a crowd magnet, and parsing its 55 indoor seats, plus 16 more outside when the weather warms, will remain a precarious art of table-management PR. There is apparently a call-ahead list (and NoWait app) with a 20-minute window, managing partner Greg Dodge says, so some open tables are claimed. The tables did quickly fill in, but that doesn't explain how I waltzed in.
In either case, there are good reasons to visit beyond its stylish design - most notably a wine bar with 30 pours by the glass and half-glass, including a rotating cast of six special bottles on the Cruvinet preservation system. It's not every day I get a chance to sip a Tignanello, Shafer merlot, Caymus cab, or Kosta Browne Sonoma pinot noir in three-ounce pours, a modest option (from $8 to $20 each) that allows for relatively affordable access to a variety of luxury wines that are marked up only twice over cost. The 24 less-premium bottles are worthy, too, from a lemony Château de la Dimerie Muscadet that's perfect for the raw bar to a Purato Nero d'Avola that's ideal for lamb.
My one hesitation - and it's a doozy - is that Tredici's kitchen too frequently underwhelmed with a potentially appealing menu of Mediterranean dishes that stray, sometimes too liberally, beyond the Italian template its name implies. ("Enoteca" is an Italian term for wine bar.) (The wines roam globally, too.)
In many cases, it was a matter of good ideas dimmed by flawed details. The raw bar serves handsome, two-handled steel pans brimming with shellfish over ice. But the huge cocktail shrimp were overcooked and bland. The "Holy Grail" oysters from Maryland were flaccid and lacking brine. And the tuna crudo - already an off-topic cliché with an Asian soy reduction - suffered from hard yellow slices of underripe avocado. The fluke, its delicate white flesh contrasted by the crunch of shaved radish matchsticks and little bursts of grapefruit segments, was one notable crudo highlight.
The Mediterranean tasting board is an impressive conversation piece. But the deep green falafel fritters were dense and underseasoned, and I'm still not sure how the additional salads of hummus (with grilled toast?), green beans, and a mound of quinoa added up to $19.
For the most part, though, Tredici feels like a potentially fair value, with modest portions keeping plates under $20. It works well for those beefy rounds of seared hanger steak paired with sweet cippolini onions in a classic red wine reduction. A pair of crispy-skinned branzino fillets were both light and flavorful over a vivid green puree of salsa verde.
But the lollipop lamb chops were strangely tough. The pork Milanese was pale and soggy on its undercrust. And the Moroccan ribs, already a thematic stretch with their slathered paste of Moroccan spice, made me wonder why forbidden pork would be featured in any culinary nod to a Muslim country.
Of course, I'm being too literal. But the more familiar Italian inspirations weren't especially compelling, either. The spinach gnocchi were seared so hard they were actually tough. The low-rise lasagna verde Bolognese was sticky with a layer of too-thick béchamel. And though I enjoyed the flavor of the lamb ragu, the choice of radiatori was a poor pairing of pasta shape (at least in its overcooked state), as its delicate ruffled fins mashed to bits against the meat.
A few of the small plates - tender chicken meatballs in gingery tomato sauce; a thick slice of toast covered with creamy mushrooms; and fried goat cheese rounds with blistered little tomatoes - were pleasant plates I'd order again. I also appreciated the resonant saffron flavor in the arancini rice balls.
Given the overall kitchen performance, I didn't anticipate much from dessert. But I was pleasantly surprised by the elegance of a house-made almond layer cake threaded with raspberry jam, white chocolate ganache, and pistachio buttercream. A pedestal of milk chocolate mousse glossed with shiny dark chocolate was also a textural treat, its airy center crackling against feuillantine.
Fortunately, those small plates and desserts are perfect nibbles should you find yourself stuck like a peasant at the bar much longer than the automatic "30-minute wait." And a glass of Perrier-Jouet "Grand Brut" Champagne would be the perfect match, because those tiny bubbles are the loveliest antidote I know to soothe any hurt feelings among hoi polloi table hopefuls while Zavino's new stylish sibling sorts out the complications of growing up.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Urban Farmer.
TREDICI ENOTECA (ONE BELL OUT OF FOUR)
114 S. 13th St., 267-928-2092; tredicienoteca.com
Tiny Zavino pizzeria has grown a stylish wine-bar sibling just across 13th Street, where a sleek marble bar and sophisticated look, appealingly affordable Mediterranean small plates, and some exceptional wines by the glass on Cruvinet have made it a destination on its own. The "enoteca" name is a bit misleading, as both wines and menu roam wide beyond Italy. But there are more pressing concerns over lackluster cooking, as well as table management of the no-reservations room, that hold Tredici back from becoming as good as it looks.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Fluke crudo; chicken meatballs; mushroom toast; fried goat cheese; arancini; kale Caesar; hanger steak; branzino; lamb radiatori; almond layer cake; milk chocolate mousse.
DRINKS The wine bar is Tredici's best asset, with 30 wines by the glass sold in either full or three-ounce half pours that make sampling a wide variety affordable. The Cruvinet allows tastes of a changing cast of six prestigious bottles rarely poured by the glass (Tignanello, Kosta Browne, Shafer, Caymus, Il San Lorenzo, and others) at fair markups worth the splurge. The standard wines were also solid choices, from a Chateau de la Dimerie Muscadet good for oysters to a plummy Purato Nero d'Avola ideal for lamb. There is a small selection of good craft beers. But the signature cocktails, mixed with mezcal, tequila, and cachaca, seemed strangely off-theme.
WEEKEND NOISE If you're stuck in the small back dining room with raucous neighbors (as we were), noise can hit an uncomfortable 96 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner nightly, 4-10 p.m. Late-night menu, until midnight.
All major cards.
No reservations. (Can reserve place in line within 20 minutes of arrival by calling ahead or via the NoWait app.)