The Things We Do For Love: New York’s Top Date Spots

To some, love is motivated by how fat one’s pocketbook is. To others, it’s based on where one is able to get a reservation at peak time on a Friday night. Excite your summer love with these unabashedly romantic restaurants — incredibly sexy date spots, dripping with intimacy, dishes that arouse the senses, good lighting, or otherwise just priced to impress. For more inspiration of the culinary sort (inspiration of the other sort may be too, uh, inspirational for this site), check out Restaurants in the guides and choose the Romantic/Date Spot vibe.

Casa la Femme (West Village) – Former downtown romantic gone uptown returns to camp out in the West Vil. The softest of soft lighting, plush seating, and intricately detailed decor set the mood; signature fig martinis and French Kiss cocktails spell romance; the hip-swiveling belly dancers spell something else, but it’s all sexy. ● The Bourgeois Pig (East Village) – A dark, red room that’s a perfect post-dinner spot when things are going well, or a date spot to pull out all the stops. The fondue makes things romantic for him and her, because let’s face it; dip-able things are sexy as hell.

August (West Village) – Raw bar for those that still hang on to those aphrodisiac superstitions; comfort food for a cozy atmosphere. Sweet nothings will have to be whispered quietly, as this place is tiny. Size in this case is just an excuse to get closer. Hold hands in the romantic garden and cherish the moment — September will be here before you know it. ● Babbo (Greenwich Village) – The only dirty talk you’ll need here is “Baby, this is Mario Batali’s place,” and “I pulled strings to get a res here on short notice.” If this isn’t enough to set the mood, then the fact that you’re sandwiched between a former mayor and Gwyneth Paltrow should do the trick. The food, of course, stands on its own as reason enough to bring your summer lover by. ● One If By Land Two If By Sea (West Village) – Whenever I poll the office on where I should take my date for a romantic evening, the unanimous cry is this place. Aaron Burr’s haunted carriage house is true romance: flowers, firelight, and a piano that plays the lilting soundtrack to your dream date. Get engaged here if you think you might need some persuasion. Fall in love here by accident. ● JoJo (Upper East Side) – For those of you buying Vineyard Vines for him, and pearls for her, here is your classic UES date spot. Slightly stuffy but enduring townhouse romancer. Love, Franco-American style. Conclude with infamous warm spicy Valrhona chocolate cake. Sex to follow. ● Capsouto Freres (Tribeca) – Long-running French romantic will get you laid. But it’s not about that, it’s about romance and the presentation — the candles, tablecloths, quiet corners, and booze make the perfect ambiance to get you feeling romantical. The French know romance, and the exceptional desserts and the extensive wine list add to the way you’re looking at your other half. ● barmarché (Nolita) – Relaxing go-to brunch spot. Because honestly, brunch done right is one of the most romantic things. Subdued, rendezvous lighting. Wear his button up belted as a dress and enjoy the Barmarche Cuban Burger. The New Old American cuisine and the sight of you with bed head makes the Saturday brunch rush worth the wait. ● Relish (Williamsburg) – Cute place for young love — perhaps you might not perceive this classic diner as a place where romance blossoms at first sight, but give the outdoor patio five minutes, and suddenly you have found “your” place. But really, nothing says romance like sangria. In pint glasses. ● Dressler (Williamsburg) – Food to die for, and just enough off the beaten path to call it your own. The mirror/light/candle combo works magic, the food is above par and quite impressive for foodies, and the dark and stormys will take care of the details.

Industry Insiders: Bob Giraldi, Film & Food Director

At the peak of a successful directing career, Bob Giraldi — the creative genius behind Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video — channeled his talents for creation into the culinary scene, resulting in collaborations with famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and a slew of successful restaurants. After the February opening of Butcher Bay, his ode to Americana and boardwalk food, Giraldi is focusing his energy on his new, “authentic” Italian-style pizza joint Tonda, in the East Village.

How did you make the jump from film into the restaurant business? I started in the middle 80s, before it was fashionable, because it seemed to me that the food business was almost the same as the film business. That coupled with the fact that I came from a home where my mother and father were really quite exceptional cooks. My mom was really quite accomplished; she taught cooking classes and studied with good Italian chefs and teachers. Food had always been the basic language of my family, so that combined with the fact that I was already in the media business and understood the idea of setting up, helped. It’s like setting up for a show every night — the waiters get into wardrobe, they go out and perform as actors and actresses, you get reviewed the next day, and then your run is completely commensurate with your performance. Today the whole food scene is completely different than when I started; chefs are stars, food shows are popular, so I’m not sure if we were doing it right, but we sure timed it right. What was your first restaurant? I was coming off some success as a music video director and was anxious to get into the culinary scene, so we opened a restaurant called Positano, named after the city in the Campania region of Italy. At that time it was one of the few, if not the only, restaurant in New York that offered Amalfi Coast, Campania regional food. There had always been Northern and Southern Italian food, but there wasn’t a lot of the Coastal and Central Italian food represented — clams on the half shell, fried calamari, and all those dishes inspired by the Mediterranean. So we did it then, and it caught on, and then we started a company called Once Is Not Enough because we knew that one restaurant wasn’t going to be enough. What are you working on currently? I’m opening a pizzeria on March 21, called Tonda, which means “round” in Italian. It will be in the old EU space on 4th Street, and Luigi Commandatore, who co-owns Bread Tribeca with me, is my partner. It’s the food people want right now and are buying in the economy, but it’s also very hip. In Italy a pizzeria is a casual restaurant where you can have other foods, but they take their pizza very seriously in Italy. We eat a lot of pizza in New York, but it’s made all over by a lot of different people, and it’s not made properly — in my own and in an Italian’s opinion. We brought in a chef from Naples, and his approach is world-class Neapolitan, which is where pizza is generally regarded as the best in the world. We’re going to try and give people in the East Village a really superior product. Let’s face it — you can go anywhere on a street corner and order pizza in New York City, but it’s usually made by many cultures, and it’s not made the way you make it in Italy. So Tonda’s unique factor is that it will be truly authentic Italian pizza? Yes, truly Italian. This love of food and restaurants has lead me all the way around my roots and back to the most basic of Italian foods, which is pizza, and that’s the beauty of the business. Most pizza is good — it’s bread and tomato sauce after all — but that’s just good, and I’m talking about great. The vibe will still be very East Village; it’s cool, and the space is really chill and wonderful, but it’s about the product. We’ve got ourselves a wonderful new technology — a pizza oven which rotates at a really high temperature, 1,000 degrees, and it only takes about 3 minutes for each pie to be fully cooked. We will serve 12-inch pies, nothing bigger, nothing smaller, and no slices. It will be whole, thin-crusted pies. In Italy, the way they eat them is two and three at a time.

Are all of your restaurants Italian-themed? The restaurants I enjoy the most are Italian — I have three Italian restaurants in Lower Manhattan and Tribeca where I go most of the time because that’s where I live — but I also have a Mexican restaurant in the West Village, and I just opened Butcher Bay on 5th Street about two weeks ago. Butcher Bay is a very casual restaurant that pays homage to boardwalk, handheld, and Americana food. . You’ve opened successful restaurants with Jean-Georges Vongerichten; how did you end up working together? Jean-Georges came to us when we were just starting out as restaurateurs. He is a wonderful chef who had just enjoyed success at Lafayette, a five-star restaurant in a hotel on Park Avenue; he got to know my partner and asked if we would be interested in backing him if he branched out on his own. We tasted his food, and he is truly a gifted chef, no question about it (probably the best of all chefs in America today in my opinion), so we opened JoJo together on the UES, and the rest is history. What are the most important ingredients for creating a successful restaurant? There is no formula, and anybody who says there is, is wrong. There are some tried-and-true things that might work, but don’t bet on it. I would say that the food is the number one foremost reason why people come back to a certain restaurant. They come back for the vibe, convenience, and a lot of reasons, but the number one reason is for good food. It’s more important that who owns it or who’s seen there. Food is paramount.

Is designing a restaurant similar to setting up for a film shoot? Yeah, that’s the fun part, especially if you’re doing casual. The fun to me is when you’re converting an old building or an old space, or you’re breathing new life into a space. I’m a man who has built sets for a lot of his life, and it works exactly the same way in the restaurant business, except that ours is not faux like in the film business. It’s got to work; it’s got to be functional. The more casual and funky, the more I love it.

Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? I respect the success, genius, and creativeness of certain chefs, the Mario Batalis, David Bouleys, etc., and there are some restaurateurs whose success I admire. But while I’m inspired, I don’t really try to emulate them. The successes are always different. For example, my success has now become a real casual sensibility; I’m no longer interested in a sophisticated fine dining … it’s too complicated, too expensive, and the chefs get to be a bit of a pain. I’m more interested in neighborhood-style casual dining. I don’t get too caught up in the food world … a lot of people don’t even think of me as being in the food business, they think of me as a film person. But I like the restaurant business because there’s something exciting about turning out a terrific product and pleasing people.

What are your favorite restaurants in New York? It breaks down by the food because in the city it’s always about what you’re in the mood for. I go to my places for Italian, but other than that I always look to Da Silvano on 6th Avenue, which I’ve always felt is one of the superior Italian restaurants, then Mario Batali’s place Babbo,and Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit (I go where the chefs are). And if I want Chinese, I’ll walk over to Chinatown to a place called Fuleen to enjoy just sitting at a round table and ordering and ordering. I’m also a big advocate of delivery — I’ve seen that explode in the last five years, so when I’m not at home cooking with my family, I call restaurants to deliver — to me that’s become so much a part of the way that New Yorkers dine today. When the Knicks play on a Tuesday night or when there are award shows, you can see the numbers rise because people are comfortable staying home and ordering. And that’s another thing I’m going to try to do with Tonda — deliver a better pizza to people in the neighborhood.

Any other big plans for 2009? I’m going to focus on my two new restaurants right now, and also I’m developing two motion pictures as we go, which is very time-consuming. I have a short film that is making the circuit in the film festivals now called “Second Guessing Grandma,” which I’m excited about; and I’ve always taught in the undergrad department at the School of Visual Arts, but now I’ve decided to go back in 2010 teaching a graduate program in independent, short film-making.

Industry Insiders: Alfred Portale, Top Chef

The 25th anniversary of Gotham Bar & Grill finds Alfred Portale, the executive chef and co-owner, celebrating his restaurant’s continued success but also reflecting wistfully on his own beginnings. He sounds off on the evolutions of both his career and the industry, oversized pork sandwiches, and Top Chef.

How would you describe your role in the kitchen? In terms of the day-to-day operations, that’s my role. Twenty years ago, I would cut fish, butcher lamb, get on the line, and cook. Now it’s more or less being in the restaurant each night and overseeing the service. Spending time in the dining room and greeting guests. We have a huge amount of regular guests and friends of the restaurant who come each night. I’m now sort of splitting my time between here and Miami. I opened a new restaurant in Miami Beach at the Fontainebleau. It was re-opened after a billion-dollar renovation. It’s a wild culture down there.

Do you have any partners? The restaurant was originally opened with my partners. There are four: Jeff Bliss, Jerry Kretchmer and Rick and Robert Rathe.

What’s changed in the past 20 years? I’m more of a global operator now. My role was very much kitchen-centric twenty years ago, but it’s changed.

How did you get your start and eventually end up at Gotham Bar & Grill? I was a student at the Culinary Institute of America, and then I got recruited. While I was at school, they opened up a gourmet food shop in New York City from Michel Guérard, who at the time was one of the greatest chefs. I saw it as my ticket to France. I came to New York and worked for Guérard for a year. Then I was invited to cook for a year in France, and later returned to New York. I did a year as a sous chef for Jacques Maxima, another great chef at the time. And then was looking for a chef’s position. I had heard this place made a big splash. It was a unique restaurant. This is essentially the way it looked 25 years ago — a fun, large, cavernous space that got a lot of attention for the scene and for the architecture, but not for the food. So, I was attracted to the space and the opportunity.

What are a few of your favorite places to wine and dine? Fishtail by David Burke, the seafood restaurant. It’s on the Upper East Side in a very elegant townhouse. It’s not a late-night cool kind of place, although they do serve late. I also go to places like La Esquina. I still love going to Balthazar and getting the seafood towers. I often start with cocktails at Soho House. I also like places like the Gramercy Park Hotel. It has remained really, really hip and cool.

What about guilty pleasures? In Italy, you’ll see these stands where they have a whole pig essentially on a fantastic piece of bread — some meat, some of the crisp skin, some of the heart and the liver. They chop it all up and pack it into the sandwich — it’s extraordinary. It’s called porketta.

Who are some people you admire? The first guy that comes to mind is Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He was so creative and unique when he opened JoJo many years ago. He had two or three restaurants in New York and somehow maintained the quality very well. I thought Greg Koontz was a great chef — I have great respect for his food. Of course, I admire Thomas Keller. It takes so much work and pain and suffering to really accomplish what he does. The demands he places on himself, the kitchen and the staff is extraordinary. I admire hard work and success. I grew up in a generation where if you wanted a culinary education, you had to go to France, back in the 80s. So I was influenced by French chefs and continue to be. Now the big restaurants are in the United States. So if you’re a young cook and you want to be inspired and get great training, you can go to San Francisco, Chicago, or New York.

What’s the one common trait among all these people? They’ve all achieved a level of success through extraordinarily hard work. You need to have a skill level and be creative. There are enough chefs that try and take the fast path to success, more driven by public relations and self-promotion. These guys come in quietly through tremendous hard work and talent and create what are now empires, through perseverance and passion.

What positive trends have you been seeing? Tremendous interest in cooking, chefs, and restaurants in this country. You look back 25 years — which I’ve been doing a lot of lately — and it’s a different landscape entirely. There are chefs and restaurateurs who have gained a lot of respect and popularity. We don’t have the same culture in this country about food or wine that they do in, for instance, Spain and Italy. It’s great to see how far we’ve come in such a short period of time in terms of the restaurants and the fantastic products we’re producing and an appreciation for fine dining.

Do you think reality TV has helped this? Well, it’s had a profound effect. Television and TV stars have raised awareness for sure. I think that I’m speaking about chefs who just embrace farmers and sustainable agriculture, organic and all these things that have crept into and are part of everyday life. I think that was all mainly chef-driven. But certainly the Emerils and Tom Colicchios have turned it into a spectacle.

What else can you say about the 25th anniversary? We’re offering a $25 prix fixe luncheon — which is a bit of a bargain. It’s composed of six dishes from our past, and they all carry the date when they went on the menu. It’s turned out to be a lot of fun for guests who recall, “I remember this dish.” In the evening, we’re doing a five-course meal for $75. We created a champagne that carries our name that we’re pouring freely with that. It’s been great. In these dire economic times, it’s perhaps not such a great idea to have a massive celebration, but to keep it low-key. We’ve invited lots of our old guests and old employees and customers to come back in throughout the month. And there are new faces too.

What was it like overseeing wannabe Top Chefs as a guest judge? I had a lot of thoughts about that. There are two challenges. I was quite impressed during the Quickfire at how free-thinking and spontaneous they were as a group. I was a judge early on, and there were at least 10 chefs I was judging. They had 30 minutes to put something together, and the results were stunning. The next day after they were given a whole night to think about it, a couple hours at night and couple hours the next day to prepare a dinner, they pretty much all fell flat on their face. It’s a funny thing — it’s like if you have to think too much about it, you screw up. I don’t know if that’s real life. I think some of those guys are good chefs. I feel like I oversee the aspirations of a lot of young chefs in the kitchen and have over many years. I’ve seen lots of talent come through the kitchen and gone onto being successful. There’s been a dozen or more stars. That’s been a really nice thing to be a part of.

Do you think that turning it into that kind of competition is a negative thing for the field? No. I don’t. I think in order to be successful in the kitchen or this environment, you have to be extremely competitive, driven, and focused. I’m not worried it’s a negative thing. Chefs, more than any other profession, so often come together in charity situations. I just can’t think of any other profession where we are called upon. We get asked almost once a week to do something for the Opera, C-Cap, City Harvest, or Citymeals-on-Wheels. I think it’s good. We share employees and ideas. Sure there’s a lot of competition, but it’s a close family.