the little owl: a prime perch

January 15, 2010 | add comment

Originally published in Greenwich Village Block Association News

Ninety Bedford Street once occupied a shoe store. An interior door led to former speakeasy Chumley’s (which is rumored to reopen). Today, that address is home to The Little Owl. If you’re in the right seat, you can look out the window to see how the restaurant got its name. At Bedford and Grove sits a wooden building—the oldest one in the West Village—and on the corner of the roof is a statue of an owl.

When owner and executive chef Joey Campanaro was renovating, paper covered the windows. When he pulled it down, he saw the statue and settled on the name. Because the building is landmarked, the red walls and blue awning that preceded the eatery remain intact. You might recognize them from Friends—the location was used as the exterior setting for the sitcom.

Despite the economy, the place is always full—reservations are taken up to a month in advance (and are wisely suggested). You can of course take your chances without one. Of the 32 seats in the restaurant, the four at the bar can’t be reserved.

While it lacks the legacy of many West Village establishments, The Little Owl has quickly woven itself into the fabric of the neighborhood. I recently sat down with Beverage Director Tracy Gribbon to learn more about what makes the establishment so damn charming.

One thing you’ll notice is that the menu—a reflection of the space—is tiny. It’s manageable…selective. An emphasis on quality, seasonal ingredients stems from longstanding relationships with food purveyors and specialized distributors. “The product is really important to us,” says Tracy. Specials are dictated by what’s freshest and most readily available.

Dishes like the whole fish reveal the Mediterranean influence that is Joey’s specialty, although the gravy meatball sliders are the most coveted item on the menu. The recipe is included here, compliments of the chef.

If you crave a martini before the sliders, you’re out of luck. Your options are beer or wine. Licensing was the initial reason for not offering hard alcohol. But management soon realized they enjoyed the ease of serving only beer and wine. Besides that, a full bar would require expertise in spatial configuration. Tracy has concocted a handful of wine-based cocktails. The Fraise Passé, a blend of lemonade, vin blanc, sparkling wine, and fresh strawberry juice is particularly refreshing.

While she’s held nearly every position imaginable in the industry, Tracy started out at a Jewish deli in Atlanta. Fourteen at the time, she was relied on to deal with a few ornery regulars (and she was good at it). Now responsible for the entire wine selection, she enjoys getting to know winemakers and reps. After meeting with Kyle MacLachlan, she added his cabernet sauvignon, Pursued By Bear, to the offerings. You’re more likely to see celebrities dining rather than promoting wines, however. Barbara Bush showed up not long ago.

Regardless of any luminary appeal, The Little Owl remains friendly and unassuming. Joey’s team is a close one, which explains the affable respect with which they treat their customers. As Tracy says, “We’re in the business of providing a good time, so we should enjoy it.”

The Little Owl’s Gravy Meatball Sliders

Ingredients

1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/2 cup water
8 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, divided
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
Arugula leaves (optional)
18 small soft rolls, split horizontally

Preparation

Mix all meats, panko, 1/2 cup water, 6 tablespoons cheese, egg, egg yolk, 1/4 cup parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in large bowl. Form into eighteen 2-inch-meatballs.

Heat vegetable oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry meatballs until brown all over. Transfer to plate. Pour off drippings from skillet. Reduce heat to medium. Add olive oil to skillet. Add onion, garlic, basil and fennel seeds. Sauté until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add all tomatoes with juices. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits. Reduce heat to low, cover with lid slightly ajar, and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Puree sauce in processor until almost smooth. Return to same skillet. Add meatballs. Cover with lid slightly ajar and simmer until meatballs are cooked through, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes longer.

Place arugula leaves on bottom of each roll, if desired. Top each with 1 meatball. Drizzle meatballs with some of sauce and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and 2 tablespoons cheese. Cover with tops of rolls. Makes 6 servings.

Eat up! And watch the vegetarians will salivate.

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