Tucked away on Amsterdam Avenue at 72nd Street, what used to be a pizzeria called Rigoletto has been rebranded into Communal Oven & Earth, a healthy flatbread and salad joint.
On a Saturday evening, Communal is sprinkled with a few late 20- to 30-something Upper West Side locals, and '80s pop music bounces in the background. The restaurant juxtaposes refined décor with casual elements, crossing an organic farmhouse-like aesthetic with Brooklynite trendiness. Thick goldenrod cloth napkins are neatly rolled and placed on round metal trays, and water is served in glass bottles with small black caps, like repurposed lab vials.
Brick walls are layered with white paint, while a long, rustic communal table, small wooden tables, and alternating white and black metal chairs fill the space.
The menu offers an array of mostly vegetarian flatbread entrées and salads, along with two combination options for lunch and dinner: salad, wine, and coffee or flatbread, beer, and coffee, gendered as “Mombie” and “Zomddy” for “An Exhausted Mother” and “An Overwhelmed Dad.”
Exhausted non-parents, though, can individually order from a long wine and beer list, which includes selections advertised as certified organic, sustainable, and biodynamic. Communal's fresh juice blends, described with supposed health benefits, have names like “Intuition,” “Strength,” and “Communication.” I assume that the target audience also frequents the bikram yoga studio next door.
At Communal, everything—including the menu—feels awkwardly new, and a bit forcibly hip. Fresh is what they're going for. So fresh, in fact, that compared to the bucolic communal table, our polished little dining desk looks as if it just arrived from the furniture warehouse in Jersey. The crudités—ordered at the recommendation of the waitress—appear as a pile of haphazardly chopped raw vegetables of varying degrees of limpness. Two dips come with it: a bland hummus and lemon yogurt with balanced creamy and tart flavors.
The bread in the “Communal Meatball” sandwich that my dinner partner orders is so barely toasted that it may still be doughy. My dinner partner describes the sandwich as simple and homey in flavor, as well as homogenous for every bite: half-baked bread here, mozzarella there, half a meatball here. All are sparingly coated in marinara.
The Lucca flatbread is composed of bitter chopped kale bits thinly coated in oil and garlic, sweet roasted tomato slices, a sprinkling of pine nuts, and sparse dabs of goat cheese.
It is the kind of meal where one scratches their wallet and obnoxiously thinks that they could've made it better at home. Outside the restaurant, colored chalk letterings boast a brunch menu with the best coffee in New York, homemade pastries, and organic oatmeal. Perhaps that is a better deal.
At the end of our dinner, I chat with the waitress, who tells us that they'll soon mark Communal's fifth-week birthday. Apparently Rigoletto was around for 21 years before it metamorphosed into a striving, trendier version of itself.
As we leave Communal. I turn to my dinner mate and say, “It looks like they were so excited to get this restaurant off the ground that they overlooked the small things.”
“Yeah,” he says, with a last bite of bread. “Like cooking the food.”
Communal Oven & Earth is located at 141 W. 72nd St., at Amsterdam Avenue.