Despite the poverty of my checking account, I had actually been to Barbetta a number of times before I decided to make it the subject of a "Who Goes There?" column. Once, I interview actress Mary Steenburgen there, and another time I interviewed owner Laura Maioglio, who is genuinely cuckoo in that way that you associate with the progeny of aristocracy and the very rich. She wears custom made, one-of-a-kind clothes of which there are no duplicates and owns a palace in Piedmonte. I dearly love the place, its beautiful sign and ridiculous chandelier, the fact that it has Brachetto by the glass and a white truffle festival every year, that it boasts of having served the first espresso in New York, that it's named after the founder's brother's moustache.
Who Goes There? Barbetta
The front part of Barbetta, the 104-year-old, grand Italian restaurant on W. 46th street, looks something like a old hotel lobby, what with its plush seating area, stately bar, wood-paneled walls and the presence of both a piano and a harpsichord(something not even the Waldorf Astoria can boast). Further on in the main dining room, which also seems to belong to a hotel: High ceilings, overstuffed furnishings and a huge, glass chandelier that once belonged to the Savoys.
Laura Maioglio, the flamboyant daughter of Barbetta's founder, decorated the place with European antiques back in the early '60s and hasn't changed it since. It seems to live in an interesting place between louche and elegant—much like the raven-haired hostess, who had a Continental graciousness, but wrapped it up in Long Island high heels and a mini-skirt. Still, gauche though it may be in parts, Barbetta sure as hell casts the rest of Restaurant Row as a shabby affair.
On a late summer day, that faux-19th-century dining room is deserted. Everyone is out in the garden, which has some of the most celebrated al fresco seating in the city. It's situated behind two neighboring buildings. (Maioglio owns both the Barbetta house and the two townhouses immediately to the left. Her father bought them from the Astor family.) There are trees and a central fountain framed by four stone cherubs. The atmosphere is genteel, subdued. Leaves gently fall on your table.
A borderline supercilious head waiter rolls an old-fashioned dessert cart carefully over the stones, past the French-speaking couple with the bottle of red; the couple from England who want their photo taken; the Asian couple; the group of three old lady friends; the husband and wife whose little girl is dressed in a pink tutu. Barbetta gets a lot of international tourists in the summer, my waiter told me. In the fall, it switches over to regular New Yorkers, mainly older ones who remember when going to the theatre was a dignified affair. Occasionally you'll see a theatre bigwig, usually a producer or an English actor slumming it on Broadway.
You need money to go here. The pre-theatre prix fixe is $58, and it goes up from there. The daunting wine list has pages upon pages of Barolos and Barbarescos (some of them rare) that will rob you of half your rent. The cellar is enormous and runs under all three buildings. Maioglio is fond of proclaiming Barbetta's many firsts in the areas of Italian food and wine. It was the first New York restaurant to serve espresso, she claims. Also Grignolino, Gattinara, Ghemme, Tiramisu, risotto, polenta, white truffles. It goes on and on. Hard to prove all this. But if Barbetta, a lone haute Italian place at a time when New York was blanketed with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, didn't blaze the trail, who would it have been?
—Brooks of Sheffield