Esca, a Seafood Standout within the Theater District, Closes


Esca, an influential seafood-focused Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district, has closed permanently, its chef and co-owner Dave Pasternack said on Friday.

Mr Pasternack said business was doing well last fall when Esca reopened for indoor dining. But when the state banned indoor service in December, it closed the restaurant. He said he couldn’t afford to reopen after failing to renegotiate the lease with the landlord of the building.

Mr. Pasternack and his business partner Victor Rallo still operate two restaurants on Staten Island, and Mr. Pasternack said he hopes to find a new location for Esca. “I built the restaurant based on people going to Broadway, tourists and people in offices,” he said. “You don’t have any of these three at this particular moment.”

Mr. Pasternack, who grew up as a fisherman on Long Island, opened Esca in 2000 with star chef Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich. It became a critically acclaimed part of Mr. Batali’s and Mr. Bastianich’s then growing restaurant empire, in large part due to Mr. Pasternack’s expertise in seafood cooking. Mr Pasternack and Mr Rallo bought the restaurant in May 2019 after sexual harassment allegations against Mr Batali led to the end of his partnership with Mr Bastianich.

The style that Mr. Pasternack forged in Esca was alternately pleasurable – typical dishes included tuna bolognese and sea urchin noodles – and strict. The restaurant on 43rd Street near Ninth Avenue introduced many New Yorkers to crudo, the preparation of raw seafood the Italian way, and a myriad of previously unknown types of fish such as black fish, scorpionfish, and porgy.

“Twenty-one years ago it was basically a culture of salmon, tuna and swordfish,” said Mr Pasternack. “The stuff I liked wasn’t really served in fancy restaurants.” He remembered being introduced to Crudo on a trip to Croatia. “I went to a restaurant and they served sashimi in olive oil,” he said. “I thought it was brilliant.”

The style can now be found in restaurants across the country. “You can go to Des Moines and get Crudo,” he said.

Mr. Pasternack, 56, developed a reputation as a seafood savant of sorts. A 2005 profile on The New Yorker captured his passion for fishing, and he’s still fishing off Long Island for the stripers, fluke, bluefish and mackerel. Two years later, New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni asked in a three-star rating, “Is Dave Pasternack a fish whisperer?”

While seafood was the focus of Esca, this wasn’t the only attraction. The wine list was widespread across Italy and the kitchen featured a number of well-respected pastry chefs, including Meredith Kurtzman, Tracy Obolsky, and Anna Markow.

Mr Pasternack said friends called him crazy for wanting to open Esca in the theater district and then viewed him as a wasteland for good food. But the dining room became a destination and, during lunch, a canteen for theater managers and journalists, including many from The Times.

“Esca was like spending an hour – OK, two hours – in Amalfi,” said Gerald Marzorati, former editor of the New York Times Magazine.

“It was a great location,” said Pasternack. “I intended to end my career on 43rd Street. I didn’t mean to close. “