Max’s malevolent moll and pasta penance.

If you’re me, you need Italian pasta sometimes to stay sane and grounded.  The challenge is finding a place to eat that pasta that’s both cheap and good – if I wanted mediocre red sauce from a jar and cheese from a green can, I’d probably be cooking at home more often.  It was with these targets in mind that my girlfriend and I visited one of her favorite Italian places, Max.  Located at 51 Ave. B in the East Village, Max was also the number 4 choice on Sietsema’s 2004 Italian restaurants list, and, unlike one of its list brethren I ate at recently, Roberto’s of the Bronx (the number 2 choice), Max is cheap!

I should make a note about the hostess, though, before we go any further – she was a heinous wench of a human being, or at least acted like one.  I’m used to frosty service in NYC, and I don’t generally hold it against places, but when your customers are a couple who probably want to have a romantic dinner for two, and you lead them to the crammed-together row of tables that always exists in restaurants in the Village (and Brooklyn, lately), you’ve got to at least throw them a bone and NOT put them right next to the only other table in the row with people.

When we asked if we could take the next table, she actually said no, claiming in a rather snide manner that she reserved it for groups of three.  Now, if this were a full restaurant, or was to become one during the time immediately after we were there, I’d understand.  However, nobody sat in this table the whole time we were there, and it was questionable whether a third person could sit there anyway (there wasn’t even a chair for a third person when we got there – she brought one over about ten seconds after negging us).  I understand the point about it being hard to seat people between two full tables (table selection at restaurants, for me, being the opposite of NYC real estate conventional wisdom), but again, this problem wouldn’t arise if you sat people in a rational pattern, filling in the least desirable tables last.

I’d probably not have mentioned it here, but she did the very same thing to another group that came in a few minutes before we left – on the other side of the row.  Note to OCD-afflicted hostesses everywhere: you are not the table Nazi.  And when you start moving tables to accommodate an incoming group and slam another table into ours, politeness dictates an apology.

After resisting the urge to flip her off, we ordered the lasagna and the gnocchi, with a side of sautéed broccoli rabe (and the waiter, for what it’s worth, was fine).  A large portion of bread and some kind of olive tapenade came shortly after, and we were happy to nosh a bit and dry out from the late afternoon rainstorm that caught the two of us with but one umbrella, basking in the glow of the low lighting (except when the lighting dimmed every time the dishwasher was turned on – uh, guys, you might want to call an electrical contractor).

The service was quick, and we were served our dishes promptly.  The lasagna ($10) came in a round crock that reminded me of a European “al Forno” preparation.  It is advertised as in the style of “mama,” and, while Dad was the lasagna-maker in our family, it stacked up fairly well against the decidedly average lasagnas I’ve been exposed to in most restaurant settings.  The beef and cheese were plentiful and the sauce, while on the sweet and bland side, was by no means unwelcome.  I thought the noodles were a bit overcooked, though.  The portion is quite generous.

The broccoli rabe was quite acceptable, while bitter and lacking somewhat in garlic flavor, despite the presence of several whole cloves.  Oily and crunchy, it was the vegetable infusion that my body probably craves far more often than it gets.  At $6, it was a rather large portion, enough for a whole meal or two sides, and I would probably have been happier with a $3 portion that was half as big (unlikely, of course).  Menupages.com seems to indicate that the rabe used to be $4, which seems more reasonable.  Guess they’ve raised the prices on sides to keep the main prices under $10?

I haven’t had tastier gnocchi ($10) in quite a while, if ever – the little morsels of potato noodle seemed fresh, not frozen, and while they were not al dente, they retained their spring and flavor well.  The tomato sauce may have been the same sweet-bland combination that adorned the lasagna, but I wasn’t complaining.  The cheese was, also like the lasagna, out of control – we were sharing dishes and had strings of mozzarella going back and forth like a spider web.  You could even have your own personal lady and the tramp moment, if you were so inclined!  Like the lasagna and rabe, a large portion – nothing like a pasta gut bomb to cap off a rainy Wednesday.

I liked Max, and I’ll be back, I’m sure, but I do have reservations about the sauce, the pasta cooking times, and (especially) the hostess.  I doubt that they’ll be improved on my next visit, though – Max seems to be resting on its reputation as the Italian answer to Mama’s around the corner: home-style comfort food at a reasonable price, with a low degree of personal space.

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1 Comment

Filed under NYC

One response to “Max’s malevolent moll and pasta penance.

  1. the attitude at this place has always ruined it for me.. it’s worse in the summer, when the garden is open..in the neighborhood, i’ll always go to lavagna, which is a bit more expensive.. i also enjoy the peppe roso chainlet, which is good, but a bit more bare bones.. and i’ve never found the food particularly great.. that tapenade does kick ass though..

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