This New Restaurant Is Betting That New York Is Back
Cucina 8 ½ debuts in midtown
If the pandemic clocked New York’s restaurant scene, you wouldn’t know it from this new spot, with its red-carpeted staircase, lavish dining room, ambitious Italian menu, seating for up to 800, and five private dining rooms at Cucina 8 ½ , newly opened in the lower level of midtown’s Solow Building at 9 West 57th St. — with the red “number 9” sculpture at the entrance.
It’s a partnership among August Ceradini, former CEO of World Yacht and Circle Line, and chair of the Culinary Institute of America; Tommy Pooch, nightlife promoter who, back in the day, shaped New York and Miami party scenes; chef John Villa best known as culinary director of the Tao Group; and Rachid Abdelouahad, an operations director for Henry at Life Hotel, Daniel, and Blue Water Grill.
“At its heart, Cucina 8 ½ will be about having a good time, and celebrating the age-old institution of 'dining out’ as a night out in New York,” says Ceradini.
The space had been Brasserie 8 ½ until 2020, when the restaurant shuttered during the pandemic (and the real estate mogul Sheldon Solow died); it has been redesigned by Cesar Galindo to include opalescent wall treatments with rose and gold bands in a tribute to Cartier’s trinity rings. Pooch cited the staircase as the spot where Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City” held her book signing.
Across from the staircases, a cocktail bar features onyx with terrazzo floors in a lounge that accommodates 150. The 250-seat dining room features a collection of cushy banquettes across from the crudo bar. Beyond the dining room, private dining seats over 200 more people, and there will be al fresco seating next year.
As far as the concept, “I wanted to leave the name, but I gave it a more Italian flair,” says Pooch.
On the menu, look for rustic and refined Italian dishes with rotating highlights from the 20 regions of Italy, along with tableside service for dishes like Caesar salad or bistecca. Pasta is made in-house and yes, you’ll also find Italian-American classics like baked clams oreganata or chicken Parmesan. Werner Palacios (Gotham Bar & Grill, La Caravelle and Narcissa) is the pastry chef.
At the bar, choose among signature cocktails and classics with an Old Fashioned menu and a selection of Negronis. A 200-bottle wine list focused on Old and New World producers will be available with some selections by the glass. The restaurant also offers grappa, amari, and a vinsanto cart after dinner.
Of his partnership with Ceradini, Pooch says, “I actually grew up with August. He's a childhood friend, and it's great to be able to work on this project with him.”
Ceradini says the timing is right for a restaurant like this. “I felt very strongly that New York would be coming back with a vengeance.” He cited businesses within the building such as Chanel headquarters and a number of private equity management firms in the building as potential patrons. Tonight, Kimora Lee Simmons and daughters Ming Lee and Aoki Lee are relaunching their popular ‘90s brand BabyPhat at Macy’s with a kickoff event at Cucina 8 ½ .
“Back in the day, I was known for having performers like Axl Rose and Cindy Lauper perform at my places. I'm bringing that back,” says Pooch.
“I lived in New York for 33 years and Miami for another 30,” Pooch continues. “I've been living in a hotel in New York City for the past six months, and it looks like I'll be moving here full-time. I feel the energy here. Every restaurant is busy. The greatest city in the world is having the greatest comeback.”