Valbella: An Italian Triple Threat
by john mariani
Valbella in Midtown
The classic adage that the three most important things to consider when opening a new business are location, location, and location has been taken to heart by David Ghatanfard, co-owner with Valerie Malfetano of three Valbella restaurants—one in Greenwich, Connecticut, another in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, and the latest set solidly in Midtown.
Straddling three different location styles—suburban affluence, Downtown cool, and now Midtown power dining—Valbella has proven that while a novel cuisine or celebrity chef may cause a six-month run of giddy enticement, the virtues of quality, consistency, and genuine hospitality will go a lot further with patrons.
In Greenwich the white Victorian clapboard Valbella, helmed by chef Frank Halili, draws upscale clients who arrive in Maseratis and Bentleys; in the Meatpacking District, limousines purr outside waiting for a stylish Downtown crowd to finish plates by chef Carlos Bracamonte; in Midtown, the town cars line up to ferry executives from Black Rock, UBS, and Morgan Stanley to their homes.
Valbella’s clientele, which includes sports figures as high-profile as Joe Torre, Giants quarterback Eli Manning, and the majority of the Knicks’ roster, do not come for 12-course tasting menus or to sit at a counter to eat only what the chef dictates. They expect the steak or veal chop to be of the same impeccable quality that it was the last 10 times they ate at Valbella, and want to be assured their favorites are always available.
I’ve known David Ghatanfard for 20 years and have come to know his food purveyors, largely from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, where the renowned Biancardi’s Meats (here since 1932) provide his prime beef, 21-day aged lamb, and milk-fed veal. The seafood comes from Cosenza’s, opened in 1918, whose owners personally select the fish for Valbella at the Fulton Fish Market. I know, because I once wanted to buy a single perfect Dover sole at Cosenza’s and was told that David got the best of them early that morning. He’s also one of the few restaurateurs willing to pay any price for the sweetest Nantucket bay scallops in season. He refuses to serve farm-raised fish, and his shrimp, from Guyana, weigh in at less than 10 shrimp per pound. “They cost me $5 per pound more than what most restaurants buy,” says Ghatanfard, “but they snap when you bite into them.”
For best-selling dishes like Midtown chef Joe Giordano’s house-made ricotta gnocchi, the captains will shave a generous portion of white truffles on top, $50 for a first course, $100 as an entrée. The crabmeat will always be jumbo lump, never backfin or claw.
Wine is also carefully monitored. “I’ve spent $10 million on my three cellars and stock 1,600 different labels,” says Ghatanfard. “Every wine, whether it’s a Methuselah of Richebourg 1996 for $22,000 or a Benziger Chardonnay 2007 for $60, is stored at exactly 55 to 58 degrees in perfect humidity.”
In Midtown, wine director David Morganelli oversees 1,000 labels, but if a customer asks in advance, he can get any bottle from the 13th Street Valbella cellar, which has 400 more selections. Valbella’s wine offerings are deep and broad in every category, including a blockbuster seven vintages of Château Lafite Rothschild, 10 of Château Margaux, and six of Caymus Special Selection. But its biggest cache is in rare Italian wines, like three dozen Barolos, as many Gaja Barbarescos, and 60 Brunello di Montalcinos, including a 1979 Costanti at a very fair $450.
The newest Valbella, on East 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, took over the space that was previously home to the high-end northern Italian restaurant Alto. With designer Christopher Pagliaro of Bartels-Pagliaro, who designed the two previous Valbellas, Ghatanfard reconfigured the three levels into a unified open space that differs completely from the genteel look of Greenwich and the industrial cool of 13th Street, where an eye-catching staircase stands out as an architectural marvel. Because the restaurant is set so far back from the street, the designer projected vivid artwork onto the walls to capture people’s attention.
The menu at all three locations is a consistent mix of steaks and chops with nonregional Italian and Italian- American items that have evolved into what might be called “New York Italian.” Portions are generous, as in the shellfish platter of lobster, lump crabmeat, and shrimp cocktail with dipping sauces, and house-made pastas, like rigatoni with diced filet mignon, soppressata, and sun-dried tomatoes in tomato sauce topped with mozzarella cheese. There are few seafood dishes printed on the menu for the simple reason that the fish is selected each day from what’s best in the market and described among the night’s specials. And then there are the steaks and chops of nonpareil quality, including a Black Angus shell steak and bone-in filet mignon.
Desserts, by pâtissier Raphael Dequeker, previously with Alain Ducasse, are deep in flavor but lightened, especially his apple tart with caramel sauce, flaky napoleon, and the very popular Grand Marnier soufflé.
These are the dishes Valbella’s faithful guests come back for again and again, as well as an assurance of being warmly welcomed and quite simply pampered. At a time when all too often in Manhattan’s overnight hot spots, a cordial greeting has become a rarity, Valbella is delightfully, warmly old-fashioned. It’s called good manners. 421 W. 13th St., 212-645- 7777; valbellanyc.com; 11 E. 53rd St., 212-888-8955; valbellamidtown.com; 1309 E. Putnam Ave., Riverside, CT, 203-637-1155; valbellact.com
photography by eric striffler