Over the years of doing the "Who Goes There?" column, I've learned there are two kinds of long-standing, unsung New York eateries. There are the kind have a faithful, stealth foodie fan base (Sarge's Deli, Villa Berulia, Liebman's Deli). When those restaurants are profiled, devotees crawl out of the woodwork and sing the joint's praises, or scold me for spoiled the anonymity of their city secret. And then there are those restaurants (El Viejo Yayo, Toledo, Tap & Grill) that have a faithful base made up of regular people, the kind of businesses considered too uncool or unremarkable to be taken up by any fanatical foodie contingent.
Writing up Il Tinello, I knew it would fall into the later category. (I'll be surprised if the column garners two Eater comments by the end of the day.) It's the sort of dull, but dependable haven of fine dining that culls favor with conservative diners but doesn't provoke the curiosity of the hip and trendy. I can understand that. Il Tinello is not exactly exciting or distinctive. That said, my curiosity is raised by any joint that sticks around for 25 years.
Who Goes There? Il Tinello
Among the disparate array of dining choices that shiver along the shadowy block of W. 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Il Tinello, though only 26 years in business, is very likely the grand old man. Conservative in its cooking (traditional Italian dishes and very good homemade pasta), decor (white tablecloths) and service (white jackets), it draws a conservative, moneyed crowd. Judging by the large number of well-filled, expensive suits that filed in—including a line of ten Japanese businessmen that made a beeline for a large table in the back—its quiet dining room is a preferred sanctum for business meetings. Many orders for vodka on the rocks and single malt Scotches filled the air. (Il Tinello serves the former in a water glass, the latter in a Brandy snifter. Go figure.)
Older marrieds and old friends catching up—as well as a smattering of celebrities seeking solitude and solicitousness—add to the clientele. Owner Mario Fabris, who hovers around the small bar area, greets everyone as an old friend as their come through the door.
It's all about tableside service at Il Tinello. You expect a place like this to have a dessert trolley. But an antipasto trolley? And there was not one, but two, fish specials that were filleted at table. Old school. Fabris eyed these delicate operations from the bar, sometimes swanning over to the action with a nervous, judging eye.
What Il Tinello looked like for its first quarter century, I can not tell you. It recently underwent a four-month renovation. There are mirrors, there are oil paintings, there are wine cabinets. Nothing so visually interesting that it would distract you from your meal and conversation for long.
The loyalty of a few regulars was not shaken by the brief interruption of service. Regis Philbin, one of the faithful, is still honored on the menu with a pasta dish. Would you want to eat something called Agnolotti All " Regis"? Well, you can if you want, and if you have $25. (Prices run high here.) Less celebrated is the Pasta All "Icahn." I asked my waiter if it was named after the corporate raider Carl Icahn. He said it was. Icahn is a habitué. In fact, according to one article I read, the moneyman once tried to make a $10 million deal over a meal at Il Tinello.
"He's coming tonight," the waiter added. Should I order Pasta All "Icahn," I asked. He scrunched up his face. "It's a simple dish. The special is much better."
—Brooks of Sheffield