As soon as I read in The New York Times that Barack Obama had eaten dinner with Michelle at a restaurant nearby I knew I had to try it.

The President frequently comes to Manhattan, and a few times I’ve been lucky enough to watch as his limo whizzes by — at least I think it’s his car, because there’s always a duplicate with a double inside to confuse the bad guys.  Often, after Obama has finished his high-powered meetings or high-rolling fundraisers, he turns the evening into a date night with Michelle.  Sometimes they see a Broadway show, as they did on this recent trip (A Raison In the Sun, starring Denzel Washington).  The restaurant they chose was Maialino, near Gramercy Park.

I immediately googled and found that Maialino isn’t crazy expensive, so I grabbed my Zagat and called, expecting arrogance on the other end of the line, as well as someone to inform me that reservations were being taken out to infinity.  After all, the President had just eaten there.  But no, a pleasant voice assured me that my first choice of date was just fine if I could come a half hour later.  Done.

Maialino Dining Room_(Ellen Silverman)The exterior of Maialino is cool, modern, serene, and the location — across the street from the flowering Gramercy Park — sets up the experience as potentially special.  The restaurant has settled into the neighborhood, bringing a sense of Roman flair and sophistication into Danny Meyer’s nearly five-year-old creation.  Inside, weathered wood floors and many wood beams emphasize the Italian rustic atmosphere, opening to a larger space than I’d expected from the smallish entrance.  Tables in front where casually dressed folks relaxed over drinks.  Walls of wine, dozens of mostly black and white framed pictures of food on the walls, and a dessert/espresso bar boasting mouth-watering cakes.  And not one photo of the President or any other celebrity.

We were asked to wait a few minutes while our table was prepared.  The hostess was warm and welcoming.  Maialino is a place with noticeable buzz, but with well spaced tables.  The ambiance is sophisticated yet relaxed, with lighting that seems to radiate warmth.

Maialino Barista and Bread Bar_(Ellen Silverman)Maiale means pig in Italian and, as expected, the menu features a lot of pork, with a “Leave Yourself in Our Hands” four course family-style tour of the menu at $75 per person.  But there is plenty to choose from if pork isn’t to your taste, and to say the food doesn’t disappoint at Maialino doesn’t begin to do it justice.  We split a pasta dish as an appetizer, which was fortunate because the portion was substantial.  Spaghettini with clams in a white wine sauce.  I’ve had similar versions elsewhere, but here the clams are soft and fresh and the pasta is at just the right point of al dente.  Next was Pesce alla Piastra, seared cobia (a fish I’d never had before), manila clam stew and ramps (like onions or wild leeks); this was prepared with a sauce so delicious I was grateful for the spoon that came with.

Maialino Tartufo_(Ellen Silverman)We ordered Tartuffo for dessert, but this was unlike any I’ve ever tasted.  Rich, creamy dark chocolate gelato smothered with chips of dark chocolate and a few sour cherries on the plate so we weren’t overcome with sweetness.

Our waitress didn’t volunteer, but when asked she said she’s been there when the President and Michelle dined.  “I never realized what goes into a presidential visit,” she said.  “They walled off the area for blocks around us, and we didn’t know he was coming until just a couple of hours before.  We were warned not to text or call anyone in advance.  Of course, as soon as he came in, everybody was snapping photos.”

By this time, her eyes were alive with the memory.  “And, you know, he was so gracious.  And they didn’t go into one of the private rooms.  They had dinner in the back.”

“Were regular folks here, too?”

“Oh yes,” she chirped.  “Of course everyone was late for their reservations because of security, but when they found out why, no one was upset.”

For the most part, prices at Maialino track current restaurant prices in Manhattan, but the experience is superior to most.  Our tab, with a little wine, came to $132.00 (including tax and tip).  Thank you, Mr. President, for flagging a special place for us.

Maialino is located in the Gramercy Park Hotel, at 2 Lexington Avenue (21st Street).  212-777-2410.  No reservations necessary for the front bar area, a couple of weeks in advance for the main dining room.  Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — and open every night until midnight.  Appetizers range from $9 – $14, first courses and pasta from $16 – $23, and main courses from $23 – $37.

Photos by Ellen Silverman.

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