The owners of 54 Mint, the NKOTB at Mint Plaza opening in the former El Balazo space this week, are trying not to draw a lot of attention. So don’t be fooled by the exposed brick interior, marble-top bar, “address-only” name, translation-free menu in Italiano, or its fancy neighbors Blue Bottle and Chez Papa.
“We don’t want any awards,” Alberto Avalle, one of the four partners, assures me as his 5-year-old daughter fills up a glass of water for him from behind the bar. He recently moved his family to California to escape the madness of running a New York City restaurant and return to making traditional Italian fare with no strings attached. Which is why 54 Mint’s mantra is simplicity. Fresh bread. A few house-made pastas. Fresh, high quality ingredients. Good Italian wine. “No bullshit.”
“We make the food that we like to eat,” Alberto says with a smirk. Thankfully they like food that goes down real easy. A few samples from our epic meal at the soft opening we weaseled our way into on Saturday: octopus carpaccio, crystalized parmesan drizzled with aged Balsamic, squid ink Arancina (fried rice ball) with shrimp, papardelle with goose meat ragu, roasted pork belly with parmesan mashed potatoes, and panna cotta, washed down with glasses of Prosecco, Grillo, and Muscato.
But as much as 54 Mint wooed us with its delicate flavors and smart execution, it won our hearts with the intangibles. A corner seat at the bar let us perch like flies on the wall of an Italian family living room, sighing with envy at the childhood we were so obviously robbed of: friends and strangers alike are greeted with a welcoming kiss on both cheeks, daddy dances and sings with his kids behind the bar while Italian pop jangles on the stereo, uncles and cousins pat each other on the back and punctuate their gesticulations with Bene!, and plate after plate of moan-worthy food makes its way in front of you and into your stomach despite your polite refusals.
After eating and drinking ourselves into semi-consciousness, Claudio Ricciolini, our humble server and part-owner, demurely declines our offer of payment. “You’re family now!” he quips, cheerfully. Bene! What’s for breakfast, papa?