Cucina 8 1/2 Revives The Swank Dining Room Of New York’s Iconic Solow Skyscraper

Cucina 8 1/2 Revives The Swank Dining Room Of New York’s Iconic Solow Skyscraper

         Building owners abhor a vacuum, and while the lower floor of the iconic 54-story Solow skyscraper on 57th Street west of Fifth Avenue wasn’t going to turn into a storage room, the exit of the fine restaurant Brasserie 8 ½ made me fearful that it might not be used again as a restaurant. Fortunately, the space has been taken over by veteran restaurateurs 

        August Ceradini, chef John Villa and nightclub owner Tommy Pooch, have, thank heavens, done little to alter the magnificence of the room’s architecture and décor, which begin with a very red winding staircase grand enough for Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell to descend in fuchsia evening gowns singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” 


   The swank onyx bar, white terrazzo floors, tall columns, expansive flower displays, grand piano and deep leather booths are all still there, although I’m sorry to see that a stained-glass mural by Ferdnand Léger is gone; instead you now look into a wide open, brightly lighted kitchen, which doesn’t have quite the appeal of a modern master’s artwork.

        Brasserie 8 ½ had been a classic New York restaurant with French, European and American cuisine; now it is called Cucina 8 ½ to reflect its contemporary Italian menu with traditional breadth and innovative depth to show off Villa’s expertise, built up over years at Tao, Le Cirque, Judson Grill, the Boathouse and Philippe. 


  You’ll want to begin with a well-made cocktail from that beautiful bar as you nibble on the warm, perfectly puffed focaccia scented with flecks of rosemary and sea salt with a little dried tomato chunks ($12). Surely a ristorante like Cucina 8 ½ doesn’t need to do pizza, but since every other restaurant in town is, why not do a really good one? Or five? Different versions include a piccante with spicy salumi, Calabrian chili and fior di latte  ($22); pesto with basil ricotta and fior di latte ($18); and one with braised lamb with olives, tomato and pecorino di parca ($24). Villa has the crust down pat, too, not flat but a true corona with all the hoped-for charred bubbles of pliant dough amid the toppings. 

        There are several other items that you can find in a lot of other Italian restaurants in New York, but in most cases Cucina 8 ½ is doing the most delicious versions, like its creamy burrata with a caponata of sweet-sour pickled vegetables, basil and crispy Speck bacon ($24).

There is a tasting Italian charcuterie ($24) and grilled octopus with celery hearts, Vidalia onions and pungent Sicilian oregano ($24).  And, if you always order fried zucchini strips elsewhere, the chips with cacio e pepe ($18) are going to be a big, delectable surprise for their impeccable texture, greaselessness and the addition of that pungent pecorino and pepper. But the one antipasto you definitely need to order—and I don’t know why it’s not listed among the pastas—is a dish made famous at San Domenico Ristorante in Imola, Italy, then at its branch in New York: a fat raviolo stuffed with ricotta and a raw egg that cooks inside then emerges from the pasta wrapping in a golden lava flow, all of it topped with black truffles ($31). It is as magnificent as when I first tasted it decades ago, now brought back to New York with real panache.

     The pastas are all sumptuous and served in main course portions big enough to share, which is a very good idea for two. All good food depends on fine ingredients, and it shows in the simple rigatoni with plum tomatoes and bright basil ($24) as well as perfectly cooked paccheri macaroni all’amatriciana with tomato and guanciale bacon ($28). Tagliatelleribbons come with a  sauce of roasted butternut squash, sage and a dollop of mascarpone ($25), while spaghetti alla limone ($27) is dressed simply with lemon and parmigiano,  and plump cavatelli take on a very rich, deeply flavorful lamb sugo with pecorino and rosemary ($32). But the big splash dish is spaghettoni with meaty chunks of lobster, cherry tomatoes and a shot of Calabrian chili ($45), a once popular dish that used to go by the name “fra diavolo.”

       I’ve complained (mildly) of the repetitious inclusion of branzino and salmon on every menu everywhere, so it was delightful to see on the menu a juicy swordfish steak poached in olive oil, with a salmoriglio of artichokes, capers, green olives and a chili pepper blast ($45)—a dish straight from the coast of Sicily.


    There is the requisite bone-in aged New York strip with the addition of roasted garlic, tomato and saba reduction ($58) as well as a nicely fatted Amish chicken with a lush salsa verde, grilled lemon and crispy potato ($34). The most generous dish of the entrées is a huge grilled pork chop with a tangy agrodolce.  And, if you must splurge, there is a Prime porterhouse rubbed with rosemary and carved tableside for $150. Oh, and the chicken parmesan ($36) is a wonderful rendering of this Italian-American classic, once again because of the quality of ingredients used, the minimum of oil and the creaminess of the mozzarella. 


  Desserts (all $14) are all worth sharing, from a plate of irresistible bombolini dumplings with salted caramel and candy crunch to a chocolate budino pudding with hazelnut caramel and drip of bittersweet amaro.

   The wine list is all it should be, and prices not exorbitant. 

    I would have been happy with a lot of possibilities for this gorgeous space—it could have been a big Asian spot, like Tao without the noise and glitz, or a true French brasserie, like La Coupole in Paris—but it makes perfect sense that it is now Cucina 8 ½ at a time when a good deal of elegance has disappeared in the Italian segment of Manhattan dining. Women may not want to don a fuchsia gown, but they sure wouldn’t be out of place if they did. 

CUCINA 8 1/2

9 West 57th Street 


Cucina 8 ½ is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Mon.-Sat.