In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
Late one balmy September night, Donna Lennard and the crew from her beloved Italian restaurant Il Buco start to roast a large, plump pig outside their front door on Bond Street. By the next day it will be deeply succulent with just the right crackle, and friends and neighbors will settle down to porchetta sandwiches with blueberry balsamic mostarda, panzanella, ricotta fritters, beer and wine. A pig roast has become something of a ritual to mark special occasions at Il Buco and this is a big one: New York restaurant years are like dog years, and reaching 25 in a city where restaurants open and shut with fatal regularity is no small accomplishment.
Cooking a pig on the sidewalk as if it were your backyard plays into the idea that Il Buco is actually an Umbrian farmhouse somehow set down among the rackety cobblestones and shiny mega-million-dollar condos of NoHo. But it’s not just Il Buco’s longevity that makes it a rarity among downtown restaurants; it’s that the food is habitually marvelous. Opened in 1994, Il Buco has an enveloping ambience, a real charm, and though there are other Italian restaurants that have been open longer, Il Buco has been serving sublime farm-to-table cuisine since long before everybody else was doing it. This is also one woman’s idea of how to eat. Lennard was there at the start and still is.
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Outside the restaurant is a little terrace with a few tables. Inside is the bar, where locals like the designer John Derian, whose eclectic shop is only a block away, settle in for a late lunch. You can eat at the bar, or in the dining room, which seats about 60. With its bare wood tables, pitchers stuffed with sunflowers, antique armoires, quirky twisted wood chandeliers and long communal tables, Il Buco is a perfectly achieved restaurant; it looks and feels exactly as intended — not an easy feat when the intention is a mellow ambience, a rustic Italy. This is the Umbria of the imagination, but better.
It’s evening as Lennard makes her way around the restaurant; tan, blonde, slim and stylish, she’s chatting, schmoozing, laughing with friends — everyone at Il Buco is a friend, a member of the family. “I think of Il Buco as a trading post for culture and ideas and food and conversation,” she says. “I like to share this life with other people.” From the first, Il Buco has been beloved by artists and fashion designers, uptown money and downtown cool — and just plain locals. There’s a kind of joy here, and it’s because of the ambience, but also the food.
Along with a friend, I’m eating the cacio e pepe (which is like a divine intervention if you’re feeling blue), plates of white anchovies and Iberian ham, and gazpacho, which is a thrilling pink-orange. There is spaghetti with mussels, sea beans, chili and parsley, a veal chop, or skirt steak with anchovy butter. You can have an olive oil tasting with the homemade bread. People sit late into the evening. Wine flows. Sergio Jadim, the sommelier that night, pours a Sicilian red, Nerello Mascalese 2016 from Mount Etna. The fans above twirl. Light glows on the copper pots and pans placed here and there, and the couple at the next table grows fonder of each other with every passing minute. The dessert arrives, a panna cotta: creamy, rich, deep, topped with a swirl of 10-year-old balsamic. I might have added the crostata di frutta stagionale with candied ginger gelato.
The food here is so simple it’s wildly sophisticated, lovely to look at but never vain. Now that everyone is doing farm to table, it seems familiar, but 25 years ago, it was a revelation. “I don’t like fussy food or too many ingredients,” says Lennard the next day when we’re sitting outside on the terrace in the sun.
“Hi, Donna,” says a guy passing on a bike. “Hey, Donna,” says the architect Maya Lin.
For Lennard it’s about neighborhood. “You create a place where people come together,” she says, before suggesting a bottle of Champagne. But if Il Buco has a certain dolce far niente, it is also part of a well-oiled machine. A block north on Great Jones Street, on the site of an old lumber yard, is Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the more casual all-day restaurant and store — stocked with olive oils, sel de mer, homemade bread and salume — that Lennard opened in 2011. And just next door is her home goods store La Vita, which sells dishes, glasses, linens, antiques, terra-cotta jugs and pitchers. Lennard also recently opened Bottega Il Buco, a restaurant in Ibiza featuring Sicilian focaccia with a variety of toppings. Yet in spite of her widespread empire, she still knows every cheese, every source, the names of everyone who works for her. “We were three or four people then, now we’re almost 200,” says Roberto Paris, Il Buco’s wine director, “But there is the same ferocious commitment. Donna was always serious and professional but never corporate.”
Lennard grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y., and studied film at Duke and NYU. By the 1980s, she was working at the stylish Italian restaurant Arqua in TriBeCa when her future collaborator Alberto Avalle wandered in. They got together and decided what downtown needed was an antiques shop. They soon found a space on Bond Street and invited customers to join them for lunch. It turned out the food was what people wanted, and Il Buco was born.
I love Bond Street. It’s an urban archaeologist’s dream, where the politician Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s treasury secretary, lived; it’s the former home of Dr. Harvey Burdell, a mid-19th-century dentist who was famously stabbed to death by his lover; the original Brooks Brothers store and factory was here, and so was Robert Mapplethorpe, who had a studio at number 24. Now it’s all architectural fabulousness — Jerusalem limestone, acres of marble, Gaudí-esque facades guarded by beady-eyed doormen. “In 1994, the block was a dump. Junkies. Rats. Muggers. At night we were the only point of light,” says Paris. I used to think, “Who comes to Bond Street?”
The actor Liev Schreiber, for one. He spent his first night in his new apartment here, around the time that Il Buco opened, “listening to the 6 train under my bedroom, trying to convince myself it sounded like the ocean,” he recalls. He went to Il Buco, told Paris how stupid he’d been to buy the place. Paris said he had something that might help and poured him some wine from Puglia “that almost instantly convinced me I was much closer to the ocean than I thought,” Schreiber says. “He brought me the most delicious food I had ever tasted: four perfectly seared pieces of tuna dressed with the most extraordinary olive oil (also from Puglia), giant white beans, onion and fresh rosemary. For more than 20 years now, I have been going to Il Buco for something special that reminds me that the rumble of the 6 train isn’t really a train at all, but the distant roll and wash of the Mediterranean.”