It’s hard to do old-school Italian with a straight face nowadays. It’s been that way since Manhattan’s Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi opened their three odes to Italian-American cuisine: Torrisi Italian Specialties, Carbone, and Parm. These restaurants dared to admit that, sure, the mid-century Italian joints of our grandparents’ generation might be old hat—but we still have a lingering affection for eggplant parm made with Progresso breadcrumbs. In their restaurants, Torrisi and Carbone (certified hipsters), present homages to their Italian-American heritage with irony. At Carbone, a superannuated waiter in a red monkey jacket will hand you a tombstone-sized menu to the swing of Louis Prima. It’s fun and vaguely Goodfellas-y; it’s also successful—a Carbone offshoot recently opened in Hong Kong. In Westchester, irony has also hit Italian restaurants. Near the new Zero Otto Nove in Armonk, Fortina’s menu touts “meat-a-balls” and “gabbagool” rather than polpette and capicola.
Zero Otto Nove, like its Arthur Avenue sister, does not do irony, although its décor offers a serious dose of hokeyness. Take its set dressing of faux ruins that introduce a brand-new (and improbably crumbling) Italian arch to a modern space in Armonk. This theme-park design echoes that of its Bronx forebear, the interior dining room of which is a sculpted Italian streetscape complete with building façades plastered with Italian film posters.
We’d have been game if anyone admitted that this is all a bit campy. But, lo, you’ll find no winks on a cocktail menu that features dated flavored Martinis and the majestically unironic Cosmo-Rita (Casamigos Tequila Bianco, pomegranate liqueur, lime, and cranberry juice). There’s a Lemon Drop that specs DeKuyper Triple Sec, as if the utility brand were something to brag about. We settled on a watery Gimlet, and then rapidly switched to wines by the glass; a highlight was the crisp Falanghina. (At press time, the Lemon Drop and Gimlet were no longer offered.)
Zero Otto Nove’s menu, while not tombstone-sized, is comprehensive. Paging past the Neapolitan pizzas, you’ll hit an endless repository of cold and hot antipasti, salads, soups, pasta, and mains. Our hot antipasto Salernitano, which was served lukewarm, was a leaden array of stuffed peppers, eggplant, zucchini scapece, and cauliflower. One can also skip the polpettine—those salty, dry meatballs can’t hide behind spicy tomato sauce, goat cheese, and polenta. Instead, hit the fave, carciofi and cacio, a pleasantly bright and vegetal lead into the carbs to follow. Even better, dive in with pizza.
The wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas at Zero Otto Nove are the reason to visit. The puffy, charred rounds are more heavily dressed than is fashionable, but they are nearly all delicious. Look for the sweet and smoky La Riccardo (butternut squash purée, smoked mozzarella, spicy pancetta, and basil) and the San Matteo, a perfectly executed standard of fresh mozzarella, sausage, and broccoli rabe. Only the patate e porcini disappointed. Mild porcini couldn’t counter bland, waxy potatoes and pizza crust, no matter how smoke-licked and charred.
Zero Otto Nove clings to an “old-fashioned fancy” service style that features waiters doling out pastas with the one-handed fork/spoon derring-do that one rarely sees nowadays. This can get either funny or tedious if your pasta contains cheese that strings. Our favorite was the mafalde con salsiccia e Provola with sausage, smoked mozzarella, and cherry tomatoes. Sadly, the gummy radiatori served in cartoccio with porcini mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes were a downer.
This kitchen’s heart isn’t really in its mains. Our branzino arrived clearly pan-seared and not roasted al forno as described. Worse, even capers and lemon couldn’t mask a serious lack of salt. Our short ribs brasato alla Peroni was also a disappointment. Its salty, muddy flavors occasioned one dining companion—a graduate of both CIA and FCI—to condemn it as “airplane food.” Oof. Smart money sticks to pizza and pasta.
But here’s the thing: Not only is Zero Otto Nove a buzzy restaurant, but its desserts are surprisingly delicious. Take the trad ice cream bombe, tartufo, covered not in plain chocolate, but in hazelnut-enriched gianduia. The cannoli—shells fried flat and served layered with tangy, ricotta-rich cream—was a triumph of restrained sugar and texture. Even sans irony, Zero Otto Nove is worth a visit.
Food 2/4 | Service 3/4 | Atmosphere 2/4 | Cost 3/4
Zero Otto Nove
55 Old Rte 22, Armonk
(914) 273-0089; www.089armonk.roberto089.com