Anyone who’s been around me over the last few months knows all too well about Alice. The restaurant that is. Ever since I discovered the West Village Italian spot last spring, I’ve been hooked and can’t stop going back or talking about how much I love it so.
If you’ve never heard about Alice, let me fill you in: Alice is, hands-down, one of the coolest places to eat in New York City. I like to describe it as a restaurant that serves the most incredible Italian seafood and vegetable dishes (the kind that you would find at a posh and stiff Upper East Side Italian restaurant) in a space that has a distinct Lower East Side, funky vibe and an eye-catching design. When you walk in, you know you’re a special place that almost feels like a secret and don’t want to ever leave.
The three owners, Emanuele Nigro, Riccardo Orfino and Wael Deek, opened Alice in November 2020 in the location where the longtime Italian restaurant Gradisca used to exist. Each brings a unique element that makes Alice the instant hit that it is.
Riccardo, from Padua, Italy, is the chef, the mastermind behind the cuisine, and Emauele, from Milan, is the main owner and oversees development and other business matters. Wael, of Lebanese descent, is in charge of the hip design, the bar stocked with fantastic, tequilas, mezcals, wine and more and all the entertainment. He curates the playlist that includes eclectic world and upbeat electronic music and finds the New York deejays who perform on Saturday nights.
When Alice debuted, the trio already owned Osteria 57, another Italian spot that’s just three blocks away. Opening Alice was very different, they say.
“The end of 2020 was not exactly “business as usual,” says Emanuele. “As a group of young adults who had just become successful with our first restaurant, Osteria 57, we did not accept that our reality could be taken away, and we worked on creating a world of our own where life could grow and prosper even when outside everything was closing.”
“That is how the “world of Alice” was born,” he continues. “We needed to believe that another world was possible at a time in which the world we were living in was not a match to our frequency. ‘Alice’ in Italian is both the name of Lewis Carrol’s book “Alice in Wonderland,” and the name of the same small fish from which anchovies are made. It was our way to open a new world and a new restaurant at the same time.”
Wael reimagined the former Gradisca into another setting all together: the backroom at Alice is not your typical dining room. Once you go past the black curtain just after the bar, you are entering a new world. Stepping on the acacia floor and sitting on the backlit velvet couches, surrounded by blue walls in the room dimly lit by a central chandelier under the skylight, you are not sure what to expect next because you’re already surprised by where you are and how buzzing the room is.
Now, it’s time to imbibe. The wines and spirits come from primarily family-owned companies dedicated to producing high quality and sustainable booze. There are plenty of wines by the glass, an endless array of tequilas and mezcals and creative cocktails to boot.
Let’s get to the food. The trio chose to focus strictly on seafood and vegetables because they were vegetarian for many years and felt that society’s consumption of meat was unsustainable and unregulated. They also felt that the New York restaurant scene had room for a solid Italian seafood restaurant and that a seasonal diet is a key to better health.
Their formula simply works. The seafood, especially the crudos and a salt-baked branzino, is pristine, and the vegetables and pasta dishes are made with the freshest ingredients that Riccardo can get his hands on. He shops at the Union Square farmers’ market every day that it’s open and serves only sustainable seafood.
You won’t go wrong with anything on the menu, and the long list of daily specials makes it even harder to pick. Highlights include a basic spaghetti pomodoro that’s the best version of the comfort food dish that you will ever taste (both my kids declare it so) and linguine with clams, a favorite of my husband’s.
Then there’s the salad of the day with Riccardo’s famous Mandori balsamic dressing, the braised halibut with baby fennel and pickled cherries and those always changing crudos. I have to add that if you don’t get the salt-baked branzino for two, you’re seriously missing out on the most delicious and flavorful branzino that you may ever try. A finish of olive oil from Osteria 57’s namesake brand gives it that final kick.
“We do extensive research to find sustainable options,” says Riccardo. “We then contact our vendors at the Fulton Fish Market to get the fishes that are available locally or from the Northern Pacific and Atlantic, and work with select importers for sustainably farmed choices from around the world.”
Alice’s wild-caught scallops and farmed lobsters are from Maine, the branzino comes from the Canary Islands in Spain, the organic shrimps are from Madagascar, and the wild cod and halibut are strictly northern Atlantic. “We do not serve tuna nor swordfish because the practices used in sourcing these fishes are not sustainable and have high costs on the environment,” says Riccardo.
Alice is a place that no one knows about yet anyone who’s plugged in goes to. Reservations at prime times are a hot ticket, and the dining room is always packed. The restaurant is not in any guidebooks and has gotten little press but has gone viral thanks to a word-of-mouth effect.
“Everyone came together, friends and neighbors first, then the rumor spread and without any advertising or promotion, the restaurant was full,” says Wael. “It inevitably turned into a party. We had set on the route to create a seafood restaurant with a slightly elevated classic menu and incredible ingredients, we did not plan for having such a festive ambiance when we opened but that is what people wanted, their energy and the energy of New York coming back to life. That is how Alice offers a relatively unique experience for its kind because high-quality ingredients and preparation are matched with a festive environment.”
Believe me, these are very reasons why I’m so drawn to Alice, and when you go, you inevitably will be too. Going always feels like attending the party to be at, and everyone is invited in.