Ryan Skeen needs to step up his game.
Opening night at Il Cibreo, and the management has contracted a case of stage fright. Wandering between tables and hovering with paranoiac intensity, they watch diners dig into Skeen’s Italianite menu. For Skeen, however, it’s a different story; curtain’s up and he’s ready to rock, a veteran of restaurant openings at, among others, 5 & Diamond and Fishtag. Known in “the industry” as a mercenary, a culinary gun for hire, Skeen has consulted his way around Manhattan. Standing behind Campo’s—excuse me, Il Cibreo’s—pass, Skeen barely breaks a sweat. Jeremy Wladis, Il Cibreo’s owner, need not worry either: his prime location on Broadway and reputation for vaguely European food will continue drawing Italianophiles off the street. That peculiar species of hipsterish, Columbia-bred WASP will still stop by for a tipple of house red and a serviceable bowl of linguine. Goofy-eyed young couples will always be found lingering in sidewalk seating, enjoying sewer fumes and other delightful 114th Street scents.
In Morningside Heights, generic and trite mean wildly successful. In fact, most of the neighborhood’s supposedly “better” restaurants—Vareli, Community Food and Juice, and Mel’s Burger Bar—come to a certain trend two years too late: scamacious wine bars, sustainalocaganic, and “gourmet” burgers, respectively. By that logic, Il Cibreo will, in the parlance of Columbia’s money-stuffed summer intern community, “make bank.” Bruschetta? Check. Fancy pizza? Check. “Contorni”—cough, please write “side dishes” if your menu does not consistently employ Italian? Check. (I assume that Cortino is a spelling mistake, not a new, exotic menu category.) “Contemporary Italian” is the natural successor to “contemporary American,” which ended up signifying repetitive menus of seasonal “American” ingredients prepared Euro-style. Of course, “contemporary Italian” just implies a sterile and cartoonish portrait of incredible regional diversity; it means “anything goes, as long as wild mushrooms, Pecorino, burrata, ricotta, and cured meats are in abundance”; it means ignore specificity in favor of generalism, caricature in favor of verism, oversalting and overfatting in favor of subtlety. Unfortunately, Skeen’s “extreme makeover” of Campo merely entailed streamlining a previously amateurish menu, making it more obviously “Italian,” and making it more obviously “downtown.” Il Cibreo is sexier than campy Campo. Wladis is smart to evoke a Soho aesthetic uptown at student-friendly prices. Skeen, however, needs to do more than update the Campo concept: he needs to take the food in a more ambitious and delicious direction.
Although Skeen’s bruschetta at Fishtag was fantastic, Il Cibreo’s grilled spring beans and pesto bruschetta manages to fall short of $4.9 (what type of pricing is that?) expectations. Someone needs to spell check this menu. With nary a spring bean in sight, I brought my Holmesian eye to bear on the charred bread: it comes covered in string beans! Cubes of plastic-bag processed supermarket chewing gum lazy bum burrata stand in for the real, creamy deal. I’ve spoken with Skeen and found him generous and friendly. In an unprofessional capacity, I like the guy. But please, purchase better products. Convince Wladis to work with better purveyors. Just do it. I would gladly pay $5.9, or $6, or $6.014527, or whatever you deem fair, for a dollop of legitimate burrata on my grilled s(t/p)ring beans.
Campo’s old menu included flat bread pizzas; I ordered a chili roasted shrimp, tomato, olive and pesto pizza, anticipating quality-er crust and toppings. Unfortunately, Il Cibreo’s pizza remains far removed from its Italian relatives. The matzoh-cracker crust tastes like frozen dough, the kind I popped in the oven for thirty minutes after community swimming pool sessions. In St. Louis, we eat cracker crusts doused in tangy sauce and Provel, a delightfully gooey industrial cheese product. Layering such a crust with small, mealy shrimp and grease—no appreciable heat, I’m sorry to report—sends the class clown to prom in a classy tux. Bring back the powder blue.
The Camp(o) starts peeking through with “Chicken Parmesan Rollatini.” Is this faux Italian a nostalgic joke or ironic nudge? Why not involtini, a slightly more proper (and at least actually Italian) word? “This is better than Campo,” my friend says. “It’s palatable. Edible,” he adds. “The cheese is quite good.” And there is quite a bit of it, too, enough to save the “rollatini” from a bad case of the red sauce blues. It is chicken parm, a fine rendition, part of this grand, unrelenting mash-up of Italian-American and pseudo-regional-Italian dishes. Arancini, vitello tonnato, panzanella, spaghetti and meatballs, grilled bass with pistou: carefully crafted to satisfy a perverse combination of nationalist and nostalgic agendas.
Il Cibreo’s dessert selection illustrates their fundamental problem. Waiters offer two sweet endings: molten chocolate cake and tiramisu. As expected from a proper molten chocolate cakeling, a fork poke provokes a volcanic fudge flow. At Jean-Georges, where this dessert gained its (due) popularity, it makes sense to keep a little lava cake on the menu. At Il Cibreo, it feels pandering and desperate and pathetic, however deeply satisfying and well-executed the cake may be.
A discerning (or obsessive) restaurant-goer can trace Skeen’s career along Il Cibreo’s menu. Bruschetta from Fishtag, red wine braised sepia from 5 & Diamond, the burger from Irving Mill; if only Skeen would bring out some of his pig tricks, like Resto’s tete de cochon, a stomach-churning (and addictive) festival of pork fat. Yet, Skeen seems content to follow Wladis’ directive: fit (the more than chunky) Campo into a skinny black dress, give her a tan under the Tuscan sun, and voila! Restaurant success out of a box. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The next time Campo changes menus, I won’t get fooled again.