Barbetta and The Heiress

Barbetta, on Restaurant Row, is the oldest restaurant in the city, located in an 1874 townhouse, owned consistently by the Maioglio family.Our amuse-bouche of salmon smoked in-house (to avoid the usual salt overload), was the most delicious smoked salmon we had ever eaten. Too cold a day for salad, hostess Laura Maioglio suggested a hot first course of tiny gnocchetti ai formaggi. The scallops in potato crust, rabbit alla Piemontese and agnolotti, a 1906 tiny-ravioli dish, warmed us up in a hurry. Flourless chocolate cake, a dessert that many restaurants do well, was, like the smoked salmon, almost too good to be true at Barbetta.

The setting is creamy and grand and used in many movies, including several by Woody Allen—you almost get a sense of déjà vu. Valentine’s Day is the day to be at Barbetta, with dancing to a “four-piece band.” You know it’s got to be amazing! We’d settle just to come back one perfect night in early summer and dine in the enchanting old garden, beside the fountain and the hundred-year-old tangle of wisteria.

The old world charm of Barbetta prepared us for “The Heiress,” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, a bittersweet love story based on the Henry James novelette Washington Square. In the role of Catherine Sloper, the heroine who over and over again will turn down a chance to be loved, is the too-beautiful Jessica Chastain of movie fame. She plays the unappreciated daughter of the stern widower, Dr. Austin Sloper, fully embodied by Broadway veteran David Strathairn. What a pleasure to watch both actors go at it in this period piece!

The play takes place in one roomthe parlor of the Slopers’ Washington Square house. Henry James described this part of old Greenwich Village as having a “mild and melancholy glamour.” His childhood home was on Washington Square, where there are still a few row houses on the northeast corner. (If you want more of the setting, take a short trip to the Merchant’s House Museuma perfectly intact nineteenthcentury house that was the set designer’s inspiration.)

The real surprise of the afternoon was Dan Stevens. Who doesn’t love the dashing Matthew Crawley of “Downton Abbey”? We were expecting more of the same in his portrayal of the anxious young suitor, but he was quite different and kept us guessing. A terrific performance.