The new normal in the hospitality industry is not normal. Writing a restaurant review in this time and place is not normal. Owning and operating an establishment based on food, drink, and intimate social interaction in this forever-changed dining landscape is not normal.
I guess not normal is the new normal.
My first visit to La Botte Ristorante was pre-pandemic. We dined on a bustling Friday night, not even a hint of COVID-19’s ominous odor had contaminated the busy dining room. The collective psyche of the attentive, affable staff and cooing clientele were not yet infected by the invisible, advancing predator.
The second meal commenced in concert with the early onset of the pandemic. The phone was ringing constantly with cancellations, not reservations. You could hear the owner’s voice drop and feel his shoulders droop with every conversation, each call chiseling away at and fragmenting his dreams, leaving a reoccurring nightmare in their stead.
My last encounter with La Botte was in the order-ahead-and-pick-up stage of the virus’s course of restaurant carnage. Like other places, La Botte converted its business model literally overnight, going from confident certainty to stripped-down survival, the pared-down staff and owners trying anything in their power to keep the fledgling operation afloat.
Through it all, the owners and staff were always professional, kind, caring, and accommodating. Opening a restaurant, nurturing it, and attracting a loyal clientele are difficult even in the best of times. I enjoyed every encounter.
La Botte occupies the space that was Pizzeria Uno in the Season’s condominium building on the western end of Martine Avenue in Downtown White Plains. It is extensive, with sidewalk seating, an ample bar and dining room in the front, and an atrium room to the rear, with a pretty view of the condo’s landscaped Japanese garden complete with koi pond (which is open in warm weather for outdoor events). Free and ample indoor parking is available just past the front door of the condominium, on the third and fourth floors of the building’s garage.
The dining rooms are bright and light, with whitewashed brick walls, backlit photos in niches, white bentwood-style chairs and tables, and hardwood floors. They are casual, spacious, and inviting — except for the background music selection, the playlist wavering between ethnic tacky and poppy elevator.
The lunch and dinner menus are similar, save for a midday selection of panini. An $18 express-lunch offering includes a limited selection of appetizers and main courses that would easily satisfy two hungry souls. Happy hour is another bargain, with heavily discounted beverages and small plates; a couple of each easily live up to the name.
Antipasti included crunchy, creamy arancini; an interesting riff on crispy Brussels sprouts, with almonds, cayenne, and parmigiana; seared, sometimes-spicy shishito; and charred octopus and fingerlings that spent a little too much time on the grill. Meatballs are personal. Be they big or small, soft or firm, everyone has their preference. La Botte’s are on the small, firm, crusty spectrum. To each their own.
Pizza is featured, and the two we tried — Traumata, with mozzarella, mushrooms, and truffle oil, and the classic Margherita — were gorgeous, generous, and made with top-notch ingredients. We universally agreed that a few more minutes in the 750˚F oven would have put them over the top.
The salads, however, disappointed: soggy frisée, pignoli-and-lemon-truffle dressing that contained hard chunks of poorly poached pear. (Why any restaurant would offer a tomato salad in winter always escapes me.)
House-made pastas were superb. Garganelli ai funghi was loaded with beautiful wild mushrooms; we slurped every last strand of the smoky bucatini all’Amatriciana; and the “white” lasagna was laced with creamy béchamel and lathered with rich beef, veal, and pork ragù.
The Berkshire pork chop is punched up with cherry peppers, pickled onions, and broccoli rabe, cooked perfectly to the requested medium. Chicken scarpariello, offered as a special, is another one of those dishes with countless interpretations. No matter which preparation you prefer, bone-dry chicken with mushy potatoes and sausage is not one of ours.
We wavered over the desserts until our waiter recommended the tiramisu and the Pastiera Napoletana, a rich, citrusy ricotta pie. Both were excellent. Tanti auguri pasticcere! (“Happy birthday, pastry chef,” for you non-Continentals.)
I tried to call La Botte for one more upscale grab-and-go meal before my deadline. The phone just rang and rang; no message was heard, no option to leave one. It was as if the restaurant was in a coronavirus-induced coma. Thankfully, the patient was strong enough to survive and get back behind the stove, trying to figure out, like all of us, exactly what the new normal is.
14 Martine Ave,
P.J. Correale is a seasoned veteran with more than four decades in the restaurant industry as an owner and chef.
Editor’s Note: The publication of this review was postponed due to COVID-19 shutdowns; it was originally scheduled for the May issue. Menu items might have changed as the reviewer made his visits in late February and March 2020.