5 Fulton St. Downtown
Price: Expensive ($18-$34)
Serving Dinner Mon.-Sat.
The little courtyard entrance to 5 Fulton St. certainly exudes a romantic vibe. Winding your way to the bar through tendrils of vine, you sense that the weathered space tucked within is a dusky and forgotten jewel among the city's culinary scene. She's an old bird, an Italian place that was serving real Northern Italian food before Molto Mario wore his first pair of rubbery orange shoes. And with age comes respect — it's not easy to make it in this most cutthroat of businesses — but one also assumes a duty to innovate, lest your own success, and more specifically the competition that it inevitably draws, pass you by. Fulton Five's new chef, Brian Parkhurst, brings a fresh infusion into the kitchen, but the standards remain: handmade pastas, tender little mussels, and a revolving selection of daily preparations that are actually interesting and worth an order.
I am inevitably drawn to the pastas, most importantly for the fact that real, traditional pasta fresca is easy to make but hard to make well, and that's in the traditional home environment. Toss in the rigors of fast-paced restaurant service and the game becomes much more difficult. What often appears from "Italian" kitchens rarely resembles the tender-yet-toothsome pasta that is the backbone of Northern Italian cuisine. But what comes from the little kitchen tucked into the back of Fulton Five are some of the best noodles I've enjoyed outside of the Italian boot itself. They aren't always perfect — that's impossible to do — but if you asked me where to go for such delights, this is the place.
I particularly enjoy the current rendition of "Papardelle alla Anatra" ($9/$17). It comes in two sizes (like all primi offerings should), and reveals the subtlest touch within the feather-light sheaves of egg noodle. Nuggets of duck confit wedge themselves in among caramelized mushrooms and a light brown cream sauce with the slightest whiff of anise from a good dose of fresh basil. But as it should, this condimenti relinquishes the main stage to that beautiful pasta, often cooked perfectly, structured and substantial, while also fleetingly light and tender. They slither across the tongue, and wrap you in the warm richness of a perfect duck-infused cream.
The other pastas seem equally well executed; smaller ones tending to be less toothsome — something to be expected in a fast-paced kitchen, but even in Italy, regional variation changes the prevailing preference from town to town, and if the pasta at Fulton Five lacks some consistency, then it benefits by the variety. My shape is the papardelle, but the tagliatelle ($10/$18) is equally divine. It comes stacked with a rich slathering of Bolognese, the granddaddy of all meat sauces, and de rigueur amongst "ristorantes" these days, but it's a well prepared sauce, slowly simmered so that the meat relaxes into a sauve posture rather than cinching up into so many tiny lumps of dry, marble-y bits of beef.
In fact, if you were seeking a romantic evening with a significant other, I could give no higher recommendation — it is one of the most capable spots in town. The service is professional and personal; you are often served by the owner, and outside of the drippy air conditioning vents that you must dodge at certain tables, Fulton Five continues to represent a special place for romantic dinners and celebratory occasions.
I always go with high expectations, visions of a great meal, that perfect bowl of pasta, a little bowl of olives at the beginning ($3), perhaps a bite of the warm asparagus Milanese ($10) with its rich fried egg and parmesan cheese on top, and an acceptable glass of Barbera d'Alba or Rosso di Montalcino. I marvel at the distinctiveness of the place, the rustic character of the well-worn bar and what have to be the coolest food-themed paintings in town (outside of the well-endowed oyster eater down at Pearlz raw bar). But I'm disappointed by the Secondi.
Perhaps I have bad luck, but my main course just never adds up to the rest. I've eaten the veal ($34) which was cooked to the point that even the beautiful Amarone sauce couldn't recover the dish. I tried the Filleto ($29), which was altogether fine, except for the chocolate espresso rub on the outside, which tasted like burnt chalk. The pork chop, pretty steep at $27, came out dry and overcooked, and the recent Pesce di Giorno dish ($22) consisted of a round fish stuffed with so much fennel and onion that after forgetting the name of the fish delineated earlier by the waiter, I couldn't even begin to surmise its true identity through the mess on my plate (I think it was trout).
My best experience has been with the lamb ($34), all juicy and cooked rare. Except that the sides are so boring (plain whipped potatoes and sautéed spinach?) that they reinforce the notion that Fulton Five needs to quit cruising on past success and get with the program. Other top Italian places in town have their own charcuterie programs, wine flights from esoteric regions of the boot, and imported, wood-fired pizza ovens. And even more competition is on the way, from people who have already achieved massive success.
Fulton Five certainly represents a great tradition downtown, but when they step up to the main event, with the new contenders, they run the risk of being knocked out.