Sometimes a night out with dear friends is so jolly and festive and restorative that the food and drink and atmosphere are either superfluous or deeply enhance the experience. Both were true on a recent evening at Buttero in East Hampton.
Buttero used to be Dopo la Spiaggia, which once upon a minute was the Lodge, Race Lane, and for 26 glorious years, the Laundry. Buttero means "cowboy" in Italian, and although Buttero is still owned by the Dopo folks (not to be confused with the Tutto gang) and while it is still familiarly Italian, the menu lets you know it is more of a steakhouse now.
One cannot discuss the current restaurant without lauding the history of the building. Once upon a time it was the East Hampton Steam Laundry, a big squat brick building. The original Laundry restaurant had postcards and black and white photographs of it, with an ancient car (possibly a Model T) and the stereotypical of the times, Chinese launderers. The title: "The Original Gang ca. 1913."
Around 1980 the architect Norman Jaffe renovated the building, installing a soaring ceiling with skylights and massive wood beams. The original brick floors remain, as does a central fireplace/conversation pit. A garden patio and bar were added during the Laundry restaurant's 28-year reign at the address. Over the years a few walls and beams have been painted or raffia-papered over but the space itself and the garden are still a glorious representation of Mr. Jaffe's work.
I worked as the pastry chef at the Laundry in the late 1990s under the son of the original owner, Bill Bonbrest. They were some of the best years of my career, as the owners, chef, and all the rest of the staff were like family to each other. All this is to say that when I arrived to meet my friends the other night at Buttero, the space felt as familiar, welcoming, and attractive as it was almost 30 years ago.
It was a balmy evening so we decided to dine in the garden. We began our meal with fritto misto, Caesar salad, eggplant Parmigiana, and clams casino. The fritto misto was very good: tender tentacles and rings, shrimp, zucchini, and bits of fried pepperoncini, which added a nice vinegary-peppery bite to the mix. The warm marinara sauce served with it was excellent. The Caesar salad was surprisingly bland and disappointing. The dressing was creamy with no hint of garlic, lemon, or anchovies. The distribution of a few croutons was chintzy. The eggplant Parm was delicious, as it is at all the Dopos. It was in a small, round, piping hot casserole dish with a mound of tender eggplant surrounded by sauce, topped with good mozzarella, shredded Parmesan, and chopped parsley. The clams casino appetizer was also excellent: six fresh little neck clams topped with bacon and breadcrumbs, some buttery briny sauce, and a lemon wedge for some zip.
For entrees we tried the spaghetti with meatballs, bone-in ribeye, veal scallopini, rigatoni Buttero with spicy and sweet sausage and peas in a vodka sauce, creamed spinach, and mixed spice fries. The spaghetti with meatballs was a big hit, the pasta cooked al dente, the meatballs fluffy and quite garlicky. The bone-in ribeye was good, not great. It was cooked properly to order but didn't seem to justify the eye-watering price of $80. The guest who ordered the veal scallopini found it way too salty but I thought it was perfect. What can I say, I'm a salt freak. There was definitely an abundance of capers in the sauce, but the veal was well pounded, hence thin and tender.
The rigatoni Buttero was another popular dish at the table, rich with tender peas and distinctively good bits of sausage, made in-house according to the menu. The creamed spinach was a bummer, it was abnormally sweet and had a garlic essence reminiscent of pre-chopped garlic from a jar. The fries were good but we couldn't quite figure out what the "mixed spice" element was, nor could we detect the "touch of duck fat" as described on the menu.
The service on the night of our visit was good; our waitress, Lavinia, was very helpful and efficient. Our one other quibble with the experience was that our bottle of Barbaresco was rather warm, which distressed our oenophile guest. Prices are high: Starters are $17 to $28, meats are $36 to $180 (for two), seafood is $40 to $60, pastas are $29 to $35, sides are $15, and desserts $14 to $16.
The dessert menu is a bit odd (banana bread pudding? Whah?) We ordered that pudding along with chocolate hazelnut mousse and both portions were very small but pretty good. The banana bread pudding was two small logs with some drizzles of caramel and a dusting of confectioner's sugar. The chocolate hazelnut mousse resembled a little candy bar on the large square plate with similar drizzles and sprinkles of sugary situations.
So the evening with friends in the garden of a place that is full of good memories for me was enchanting. The food had highs and lows, but if I lived in the neighborhood I would be a regular. Lucky for me, living in Sag Harbor Village, I have a Dopo la Spiaggia a few blocks from home.
31 Race Lane
Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30-9:30