Il Mulino

Little Italy, big bucks.

It’s expensive—as in $55 for whole bronzino baked in sea salt. It’s Old World: Think waiters in tuxes, a lavish display of Italian salamis and cheeses, and tapestries à la Medici. And somewhere between the exhaustive roster of recited specialties and the hulklike portions, it suddenly clicks: Il Mulino is an Italian restaurant with the sensibility of a high-end steakhouse, a close cousin of the Palm and Morton’s.

Like those temples of big beef, it’s the kind of place that high-rollers gravitate to: Senator Barack Obama, comedic crank Larry David, and on one Friday night, a posse that could have passed for Tony Soprano’s gang, gold chains and all. Service is attentive, with lots of tableside deboning and peeling—it’s enough to make all comers feel like somebodies. So far, reservations haven’t been as hard to snare as at the Greenwich Village original. Unless you’re a regular with the unpublished reservation number, that can be a tough place to get into. The customers come even though the menu clings to anachronisms such as penne à la vodka—and despite the advent of Babbo, L’Impero, Esca, and other restaurants that have changed the face of Italian cooking in New York.

It must be the garlic. Il Mulino’s cuisine has always been liberally perfumed with it. The secret weapon in those addictive peppery rounds of marinated zucchini, one of several gifts from the kitchen that await on every table? Garlic. It also imbues the thin, flavorful slices of house-made sausage called cacciatorini, another gratis plate. And it wafts from the bruschetta, mounded with chopped tomatoes, that appears a bit later along with hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano—more offerings from the chef.

Many diners probably could stop there, but you can’t just take the freebies and run. Most follow convention and order a first course, entrée, and dessert.

My advice? Look to pastas such as the heady porcini-filled ravioli kissed with Champagne and black truffles, or perhaps the satisfying pappardelle with sausage, or linguine with littleneck clams. Add a bottle of wine—expensive but interesting vintages are the chief options—and you’ll still feel as if you’re getting a decent deal with all those free antipasti.

Venture into veal and seafood territory and prices go stratospheric, unless you’re of a mind to share—not a bad idea given the size of that bronzino. The fish, fileted tableside, is delicious with its simple sauce of olive oil and lemon. Veal cutlet—really a chop, pounded and breaded Milanese-style and served with a heap of arugula, red onions, and more garlicky diced tomatoes—is another generous plate.

Beyond these are a passel of disappointments. Langoustines taste fishy rather than briny. Shrimp francese is a lump of flavorless seafood in soggy egg batter. And osso buco is good, not great.

Come dessert, sharing is practically a must. Il Mulino does a decent tiramisu and a gooey tartufo that will keep the chocolate-minded contented. But the sweet worth splurging on is velvety zabaglione for two, whisked in a copper pot tableside—you can even buy the pot to attempt the dish at home—and served warm like nursery pudding. Who knew such otherworldly bliss could be had for $18? It’s expensive, sure, but it’s worth it.

If only that were the case more often.