By Heather Bryce
When I tell my glamorous ex-model friend Camilla that I’m going to Nello, she tells me she was a bartender there in the ‘90s, a transition from her modeling career in Europe.
“That’s where I met my husband,” Camilla says.
So I invite Camilla to join me for old time’s sake. She is excited to see Nello after all these years. But when we arrive: no Nello. Camilla is bummed.
“Where is he?” we ask the maître d’. When he isn’t forthcoming we ask waiters, bus boys, whomever.
“Is he still involved? “When was the last time you saw him?”
The pat answer we get is, “We don’t know.” The more discreet they are the more the mystery thickens. Upon relentless inquiries, one of the many servers finally gives us a clue:
“I only know what I read in the paper.” What?!
So we go to the ultimate source of all significant moves and shakes in Manhattan, Page Six. And here’s the scoop: “After 25 years of providing pricey portions to business moguls, models, Upper East Side socialites, Russian oligarchs and stars, including Mickey Rourke and Arnold Schwarzenegger, at his people-watching mecca of a restaurant on Madison Avenue, Nello Balan says he is stepping aside to focus on another project.”
It turns out that Nello’s partnership with “hospitality bigwig,” Thomas Makkos, didn’t pan out. Though Nello still owns 50 percent of his eponymous Madison Avenue institution, he has moved on with a new partner, billionaire Oswaldo Karam, to transform the space at 14 East 58th Street into two restaurants and a private club.
Back to the happening boite where, it being a warmish October evening, we are given a table on the sidewalk. The place is still a “scene” with stunning former models at one table and single hedge-fundish guy at another. Even the waiters are good looking. They hover at attention like soldiers nearby on the sidewalk, the better to protect us from potential purse-snatchers we hope. There is one guy whose only job it seems is to grind pepper over our plates. The formal service is impeccable.
One look at the menu and Camilla starts to reminisce, recounting “crazy party nights” where “everyone would show up.” It was “very intimate, everyone knew each other.”
She even recalls the day her former customer, Peter Beard, brought in his wildlife photos to hang on the walls. Beard’s images of giraffes and lions still grace the menu, which by the way is huge (both in size and number of entrees). There are so many dishes to choose from that our heads spin. Well, not really, perhaps the spinning is due to our tasty Bellinis, made Nello style with not only peach, but also strawberry puree.
On an exotic note, we are happy to report that though a lack of rainfall in parts of Italy have caused a shortage and price hike for white truffles, the folks at Nello tell us that they are the only New York restaurant serving the luxurious delicacies which are featured on the Carpaccio Con Palmito and Insalata Di Carciofi.
For our appetizers we chose the fresh Ugly Heirloom Tomatoes featuring Italian peppers, feta cheese, herbs with a splash of olive oil – they were actually quite pretty. The tasty ricotta di buffalo and spinach ravioli was doused with organic tomato and basil. Our favorite was the Bietole Rosse E Gialle Red (yellow beets with baked chevre). Yummy!
Next we dined on Linguine Alle Vongole Manilla, clams slathered in pinot grigio and aglio olio and spaghetti carbonara with San Daniele prosciutto and crushed hearts of Vidalia onions. The osso buco garnished with wild mushrooms was tender but for those who are not salt lovers ask for less. The Chilean Sea Bass “Osso buco” cooked in a lobster saffron veloute and served over rice pilaf had a spicy Indian edge.
Dessert? Who had room? But we nibbled on their divine fresh berries and homemade tiramisu and napoleon so as to linger a little longer, watching the passing parade of upper crust East Siders strolling along the avenue.
696 Madison Ave, New York 10065
(Between 62nd & 63rd St)