New York likes its institutions: Old-school, clubby, unchanging, and usually exclusive. Il Mulino, a holdout from the days when the area around Sullivan Street was a very Italian part of Greenwich Village, is all these things – and the crowds keep coming back.

Though Il Mulino New York now has a dozen locations around the country, and even the globe (there are outposts in Tokyo and Puerto Rico), their downtown location is the original. The restaurant opened in 1981 with a focus on the food of Italy’s Abruzzo region. Over the years, many boldface names have graced the closely arranged white-linen-covered tables in the intimate dining room: Leonardo DiCaprio, Peyton Manning, former president Bill Clinton, President Obama, and countless others.

The vibe here is not just old-school, but Old World. Jackets are recommended for gentleman – not usually an issue with the expense-account crowd that frequents the place. Black-suited Italian waitstaff are solicitous and formal, the dining room is dim and cozy, and prices are unabashedly high, especially on the wine list.

Call to reserve a table and you may get no answer; search OpenTable, and you’ll probably be offered a 5pm time slot. When you do finally show up at the appointed hour, you might have to wait – who knows what VIP has walked in that night. In our era of nonstop new restaurant openings, large, light-drenched dining rooms, and the anonymous populism of online reservations, a place that cultivates clubbishness and handles itself with a certain gravity seems refreshing.

Though it’s just a few blocks from Little Italy, Il Mulino’s menu offers something different from that neighborhood’s ubiquitous (and often disappointing) red-sauce joints. Abruzzo food emphasizes olive oil-based sauces, plus favorites like pasta, polenta, fish, and serious meats. Dishes including whole branzino in garlic and olive oil, costoletta alla Milanese – a pounded veal chop topped with arugula – plus lamb chops and house-made desserts like chocolate cake are enduring favorites.

Naples-born executive chef Michele Mazza, who’s worked at the restaurant since 2003 explains, “I take into consideration Abruzzo’s typical cuisine and combine that with my personal culinary touch.” For the legions of regulars and visitors who go out of their way to dine at this New York institution, it’s a winning formula.

Il Mulino
86 West 3rd Street
New York, NY 

 – Jenny Miller