Sometimes, a cigar bar is just a cigar bar — because there’s very little you want to do in that bar except smoke cigars.
For me, that was the case at Red Phone Booth. (Except, to be truthful, I didn’t actually smoke a cigar.)
My friends and I made a Friday night stop in this “Prohibition Experience” for cocktails before heading upstairs to its sister restaurant, Amalfi Pizza. It’s hard to say whether this shadowy speakeasy left us cold because the cocktails and food were afterthoughts to the stogies, or because tobacco-bathed eats and drinks are just gross.
This is not to say Red Phone Booth isn’t fun, starting with its doorway — or lack thereof. Seriously, there is no door. Only a mysterious, old-timey red phone booth planted against a wall outside the old Dailey’s building on Andrew Young International Boulevard.
Once you procure the secret phone number, which is part of the game here, you’ll want to dial from the vintage phone inside. Calling said number leads to a surprise entry that might have you and your companions tumbling into the bar like so many Marx Brothers.
Starting your evening with such theatrics is as entertaining as your next step: reading the Booth’s menu. It’s one of those encyclopedic tomes that includes family lore, a Prohibition history lesson, membership fees and cutely crotchety “Rules of the House.” (“No crying and no yawning at the bar,” reads one. “We are neither your mother nor your bed.”) The cocktails are not cocktails, but “prescriptions” or “vaccines” or “remedies.”
And then there’s the wonderfully sinister setting. It has a low-ceiling and is brick-lined and full of sumptuous leather sofas, which were, in turn, full of cigar-puffers. The air positively swirls with smoke, and the centerpiece of every table is a huge, amber glass ashtray. It’s made for sin, this bar.
Which means, of course, that, with your cocktails, you ought to order oysters or beef carpaccio or a quintet of jumbo shrimp, perched tail-out like so many burlesque dancers on the rim of a martini glass.
But, if the idea of inhaling secondhand smoke along with your raw mollusk makes you recoil, as it did me, you might order the incongruous but safe spinach and artichoke dip. I did. It was watery, almost flavorless, and served with stale tortilla chips. I regretted it almost as much as I did several of our cocktails, which ranged from an oversweet, medicinal gin and blackberry concoction to an overbittered Sazerac that was absolutely foul.
On the other hand, my Manhattan variation, called the Red Hook, had a finely balanced match-up of bitters and Maraschino liqueur along with very good rye.
A few sips in, with smoke overwhelming me, I scooped up my coupe and asked a server in an old-fashioned vest and tie tack to let me take it up to the pizza joint. He led us out a back door — since the way out of Red Phone Booth is as secret as the way in — and we landed in a stairwell as star-lit and open as Red Phone Booth had been underworld. It even featured a burbling fountain. And it led to Amalfi, a huge, rustic-industrial aerie.
If Red Phone Booth is made for hiding out, Amalfi is all about display. Diners sit in semi-circular banquettes facing outward. A smiling chef occasionally stands behind glass in a white-tiled room, kneading dough for our entertainment. And not one, but two, domed, imported pizza ovens flame dramatically in an appealing open kitchen.
The dining room was pretty barren for 8 p.m. on a Friday night, but I suspect it’s hopping during workday lunch hours. I suspect this, not just because this restaurant is surrounded by office buildings and hotels, but because its Neapolitan pies are pretty delicious.
The menu, created after owners Greg Grant and Stephen de Haan studied with pizzaiolo maestros in Naples, pretty much insists that you order the Pizza Carnevale. The pie, with its ricotta-stuffed crust arranged into points, is shaped cutely like a star.
But, this is no shtick. The crust is great — chewy and charry, with just the right balance between salt and sweet. The ricotta tucked into each point is a mini explosion of creaminess in your mouth. But, there’s a lightness to this cheesy bundle. It’s not overwhelmingly rich. The central part of the pie is minimally dressed with fruity, light sauce, fior di latte dollops and basil sprigs. It’s pretty much everything you want from a fire-baked Neapolitan pie.
Our white pizza, tartufo e funghi, was a little more cheese-heavy, but it was otherwise lovely, with succulent mushrooms and a not-overwhelming aroma of truffle oil.
The pasta didn’t measure up to the pizza, especially a perplexingly bland pappardelle bolognese. But our pasta con gamberi was a lot of buttery, garlicky goodness, in which plump, very tasty shrimp made up for angel hair that was a little doughy and clunky.
It’s no surprise, what with its theme of decadence, that Red Phone Booth offers five desserts, including a lemon zeppole and a Nutella calzone.
It’s also no shocker, given Amalfi’s more elegant restraint, that its housemade dolce number only two — a cannoli and tiramisu. The latter was fine. The former was creamily fabulous, with a candied orange peel tucked into one end of its crisp, flaky shell. It was a breath of fresh air, much like Amalfi itself.
None of this means you should skip that oh-so-sexy den of iniquity downstairs. It’s a glamorous place to visit. It’s just that Amalfi feels much more like home.