Otto And Grilled Pizza: A Worthy Concept? Or just Odd?

09-otto-logoI went to Otto tonight for dinner with an old college friend, Craig Welsh of Go Welsh design.  Craig was in town to judge the 365 AIGA Annual Design Competition.  We had a great time catching up and talking about design and trying to run a business to varying degrees of success.  But here’s the troubling thing - I left wondering why we had gone to Otto.

Craig is from out of town so it was up to me to pick the place to eat.  So I chose Otto.  I have been to Otto hundreds of times.  I have taken dozens of visiting guests to Otto over the years.  But why?  Now let me set the record straight by saying that I love Otto.  Mostly.  And I love Mario Batali.  Really. (except when he and Gweneth and Mark Bittman ad lib while schleping around Spain.  They need a script…)

I think it boils down to this:  Otto is a bit… odd.  There is something within the concept – from the menu, to the meal structure, to the design of the space, to the color palette,… the train board… that doesn’t quite work.  And yet the place is always pretty full.  Not to mention that I keep going back…

So what is it?  Well, it’s not the front bar room.  As annoying as the train board gimmick is, when the bar room is full of waiting diners, I don’t mind standing there with a glass of wine.  (Although I DO see through the subtle tyranny of the ’no reservations’ policy that forces you to wait for a table… and consequently buy more alcohol than you might had you been seated immediately).

It’s not the food.  Batali’s food always tastes great.  Great Flavors.  Always seasoned well.  I particularly enjoyed the peppery cauliflower “alla Siciliana” and the lentils “Toscana”.  And the pizzas are… er… great too… I think.  Although, now that I am thinking about it, ‘grilled pizza’?  Why?  Let’s be honest, if you put Otto’s pizza up against other top-tier pizza in the city (Patsy’s, Lombardi’s, Grimaldi’s, John’s, Di Fara’s, etc.) it does not stack up.  Maybe because of the cooking process, I’m not sure, but the pizza turns out a bit dry.  Toppings included.  The crust is dangerously thin in places and less plyable than one might look for.  When all is said and done, I don’t think that grilling brings any added value to the pizza.  It’s still good.  But not ‘better’.  And speaking of grilling, if Mario is going out on a limb by introducing a new twist on typical pizza making by grilling, why does the diner not experience that ’specialness’ somehow?  Shouldn’t Otto put the grilling on display so that people can see it and ‘get’ it?  Like seeing the white-hot coal-fired oven from your table in other pizza joints.  Otto displays the salumi counter in the front bar.  Why not the pizza grill?  An odd choice, I think, from a restaurant design standpoint.

Also, gettng back to the antipasti for a moment – the vegetables we ordered came to the table in little ramekins.  As usual.  They tasted great, of course, but the experience of eating them is a little odd.  Are you meant to simply spoon them onto your plate and then fork them up?  Or should we be using the bit of bread that comes to the table wrapped in paper?  The paper wrapped bread is a nice visual on its own but it does not lend itself to the experience of enjoying the antipasti course of a nice Italian meal.  Shouldn’t there be some nice olive oil to drizzle over the bread and ‘verdure’?  Make a yummy oily mess with it all and scoop it up with bits of bread?  As it is the bread ends up getting ripped apart and eaten dry.  And never finished as the taste of dry bread gets old quick.

Another part of the experience that struck me is the relationship between the servers and the menu.  Our server was nice.  But the menu is broken up in such a way that an order placed without a thorough understanding of how best to structure your meal can produce a clumbsy dinner.  The servers should, in my mind, be muchmore hands-on in terms of guiding diners through the ordering process and suggesting selection progressions, etc.

The last thing I want to mention it the dining room.  I have written about this before but the dining room is really. Really. Drab.  That ‘Burnt Sienna’ color on the walls is downright oppresive.  And on walls devoid of any artwork or ornamentation I might add.  Save for some sad little light fixtures…  Being led to the dining room from the more cheery front bar room is a real downer.

I will save comment on the relentless soundtrack of slightly too loud 80’s pop for another time…

All of these little things, while not neccessarily bad on their own, add up to a dining experience that is… good.  But clunky.  Which pains me to say.  Because I like Mario and I like his food.  But the overall dining experience, from how the diner is led through the restaurant’s progression of spaces, menu and food, does not come together, in my thinking, to produce a unifying concept to reinforce the ‘brand’.  I’ll eat there again, of course.  But I’ll know ahead of time that something is not quite right.  And I guess that will have to be o.k.
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