Walk by the Nomad Bar Monday through Saturday night and take a look inside. Through the large street level window you'll see a crowd of well-dressed people sipping fancy cocktails and engaged in conversation at stand-up tables and a bar area full of patrons enjoying drinks while waiting to be seated for dinner. Walk by on Sunday night and the curtains are tightly drawn. The only indication the place is even open is a small folding sign out front with a yellow-hued drawing of the hotel that the bar/restaurant occupies and the words "Mama Guidara's Ristorante" written in a cursive red font at the bottom.
Beginning this past fall, Sunday nights at the Nomad Bar are reserved for owners/chef Will Guidara and Daniel Humm's ode to classic "red sauce" Italian-American dining, as the space transforms into Mama Guidara's Ristorante, red checkered table cloths and all. While on its face it may seem like a departure for the duo, this type of dining is very much in Guidara's blood, whose father ran the popular Theater District Italian spot Mama Leone before it closed its doors back in the nineties. And despite the restaurateur having reached the pinnacle of fine dining with Eleven Madison Park and two spaces inside the Nomad Hotel, a recent interview with Eater revealed that serving fried calamari at one of his restaurants as being a dream.
Mama Guidara's isn't the type of place that you wander into off the street. Getting a table requires you to choose a Sunday night several weeks in advance, make a reservation and prepay for the prix fixe four course meal ahead of time. After ten years living in New York City you need to get creative when thinking of new ways to celebrate special occasions, and when it came time to make plans for my wife's 30th birthday, a reservation at Mama Guidara's seemed to check all the boxes.
On Sunday nights the space generally looks and feels the same as any other night, with subtle odes to the Italian-American dining experience sprinkled throughout. Chianti baskets made into candles sit on the mantle and a large Italian flag hangs behind the bar, all while suspender wearing bartenders race back and forth vigorously shaking and stirring drinks. Above the fireplace hangs a framed banner with the restaurants namesake in its signature red font. The music that plays is an eclectic mix, changing from Roxy Music to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to Fleetwood Mac to Louis Prima to the Kinks to Frank Sinatra and on and on.
One of the reasons to go to the Nomad Bar on a regular night is to enjoy a selection from the cocktail menu, and come Sunday night that's no different. The drink selection includes a handful of classic which include an Amaretto Sour, Gimlet, Aperol Spritz and a Grasshopper. Just a few sips into the Amaretto Sour and our table was ready. We were led up the stairs to the second level where a two-top tucked away in the corner that overlooked the bar area awaited. After finishing your cocktail you can browse the refreshingly simple wine list that is limited to a few choices, eliminating the need for you to thumb through pages and pages of hard to pronounce regions of Italy, when all you really want and need is a simple Italian table wine, anyways.
When it comes time to decide on food there is little for you to do. The four course prix fixe menu is for the most part predetermined, and starts off with a variety of meats, cheeses and pickled vegetables, accompanied by soft bread with a side of butter packets. Next comes a basket of calamari, Caesar salad topped with chunks of soft boiled egg and a bowl of meatballs in marinara. For the main course, a variety of choices are presented, which includes pasta dishes in either a red or white sauce and a few different variations of classic Italian chicken dishes to split. We ordered the chicken parm, thanks in part to some favorable reviews we read beforehand, andwhen placed down between us it engulfed half the table. By the time desert arrived, which included homemade cannolis and a chocolate encrusted ball of ice cream, we had full stomachs and a hefty to-go container sitting next to the table.
At the end of the day, Mama Guidara's offers some great classic Italian food to be enjoyed in a more downtown than uptown setting. Could you get the same caliber of food somewhere else seven days a week and without the steep price tag and hoops to jump through? Probably. But as is the case with a lot of dining experiences, it can be just as much about the ambience and experience as it is the food, and based on that measure, Mama Guidara's and the Nomad Bar deliver.