A few days ago, Heather and I jumped out of a cab on Madison avenue and walked right into what looked like a cute café. Big mistake: it was Nello.
Known to locals for its outrageous hidden charges, we were foolish to head in without looking it up. But you don't even need to hit Yelp to know this place is bad news: Nello's ripping-off of diners is so notorious the New York Times has written about it.
At the end of the meal, I got a look at the check and for a moment I thought I was hallucinating. The meal for the three of us cost $400. How was that possible? Easy. The pasta dish cost $275. No joke. When I confronted the headwaiter, I was told that Nello never discloses the prices of specials.
That's not to say that all reviews are unfavorable. According to The Times, a New York Post columnist once had to apologize in print for accepting a $1,000 "gift" from Nello's proprietor.
Oblivious and dumb, we settled in as a United Nations-worth of red flags popped up one by one. Well-dressed waiters paced ostentatiously near the windows, doing no real work. It just struck me as lazy, but it's apparently a performance to help Nello cultivate a peculiar celebrity culture.
Not everything on the menu was priced. Specials are hard-sold; ask a price for one, and a server mumbles quickly through the prices of all. We didn't get suckered by the $275 truffle shavings, fortunately. What got us was the sundries.
We ordered a couple of dishes we thought were $30 or so: expensive enough! But a salad turned out to be another $49. Coffee was $12 per tiny little cup. Refill, sir? No, thank you, I'll just have water. Water was $15.
The weirdest red flag: the table next to us emptied suddenly while we were eating. I didn't pay any attention to it, but when our check came later—complete with a 20% gratuity already applied—it listed all sorts of things on it we had not ordered. It turned out to be the table of no return's gargantuan bill, accidentally given to a foreigner eating a $30 Papardelle pasta.
How about that.
Nello's food is shit, a fact danced around by The Times' Sam Sifton, who can't quite snap himself out of his awe at its "sociology", by which he means the presence of rich people.
Crisp artichokes .. tasted of shirt cardboard. They ate sawdusty chicken livers lashed with balsamic. They sipped at lentil soup familiar to anyone who owns a can opener and shared too-salty saffron risotto, correctly yellow, of no particular flavor. They gummed at cannelloni with mushrooms that from the grit on them might actually have been harvested wild, as well as at rubbery swordfish drenched in mustard sauce, then laughed about lobster ravioli so tasteless it might have been prop food for an advertisement.
The proprietor, Nello Balan, boasts that he is descended from Vlad the Impaler. But this too-clever rationalization — I'm a celebrity-sucking vampire! — is just another story around what he really is: a huckster who rips off stupid, inattentive tourists, like me.