June 11, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
Honor Thy Pasta

 

          The most exciting and adventurous Italian restaurant in New York survived exactly two weeks. It did not die from an excess of love or greed or the pinch of fickle indifference. It perished because it was programmed to perish. This feverish, passionate Italian Fortnight sprang forth earlier this year from the creative foreheads of the Brody Corporation as a gimmick, a promotional lure, to entice New Yorkers to the Rainbow Room, that spiffy Lucite relic atop the RCA building, Mt. Everest of tourist turf.

 

          What a brilliant noise. From the grand hotels of Florence, Rome and Venice came six master chefs and a one-eyed sorceress of pasta. From the floating elegance of the Italian Line came ten polished stewards to lend oceanic grace afloat in a sea of smudgy sky. What ambition, to dedicate a fortnight to tipicaauthentica, to devote each night to the gastronomic glory of a different region of Italy. Tuscany on Thursday, Piemonte on Friday, Lombardy on Saturday. A provocative wine list, gently priced. And wine tastings on the house: a bit of gorgonzola, a sip of Bolla Amarone, and thou…from Sands Point and Mott Street, from Beekman Place and West End Avenue. New Yorkers in the Rainbow Room: the jaded and abused, the secret romantics, ambassadors and truckdrivers, expatriate aristocracy-on-the-cuff, curious restaurateurs, free-lance gastronomes, and one dozen thirtyish debutantes, come down on the “D” train signing along with the strolling troubadours, “Volare…” and crying out, “Bravo Napoli.”

 

          Since the retreat of the borrowed Italians in a final flourish of transcendent gnocchi, spiritual risotto and carnal polenta -- parmesan woven in velvet -- the Rainbow Room has reverted to a neutrality they call “Continental.” And dining Italian in New York is tame again: a tidal wave of tomato sauce, a tortured curl of Marsala’d veal, the puckered pea and a thousand tombstones of weary spumoni, a pitiful parody of what dining Italian ought to be.

 

          Is it possible that three centuries ago the chefs of Catherine de Médici taught the French how to cook…and then were seized with amnesia? Granted, New Yorkers dine well on the assimilated home cooking of Naples and Sicily. Spaghetti alla marinara. It’s as American as Wonder Bread. But mimicked glory of Piemonte and Tuscany and Lombardy blurs and disappoints.

 

          Barbetta, with its haute airs, ambitious menu and well-stocked cellar, promises splendor -- and delivers an imaginative fritto misto, salty bagna calda, game in season -- but is testy and uneven. Narcissa camps at Orsini’s, in the sunny fake rusticity irresistible to the must-see-ers and the must-be-seen. The food scarcely matters. There is boiled beef and lamb trimalchio at the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, but the Forum is essentially Walt Disney Italian.

 

          There is an Italian spirit at Quo Vadis, osso buco on Wednesday and the best bollito misto in town, but the menu is French. So too at L’Aiglon, where the hosts are from Lombardy and piccata à la Guido could not be more elegant, thinner than Gloria Guinness, in a refined coverlet of tenderest eggplant -- throw-away Italian parentheses in a litany of French. Nicola Paone’s is a happy mutant with some Italian chromosomes, and Mamma Leone’s is an institution.

 

          The restaurants of Little Italy are mostly sacred to the Neapolitan tomato trust. But where is the grand tradition of the North? I have spent two years searching for it and my exploration weaves a trail of mournful disillusion. Nobody here really wants to play the game. Does anybody care? they ask, invoking the Franco-American Spaghetti mentality: Americans don’t want authentic regional Italian cooking; they want spaghetti and meat balls like Mama used to make. Mama Bloom and Mom O’Brien and Mumsy Auchincloss.

           

          WELL THEN, HONOR THY PASTA

           

          For sheer sybaritic ecstasy (in prudent measure) we do find delicate leaves of spinach-tinted cannelloni, peppery Marsala-spiked cream tossed over fresh homemade fettuccine, spaghetti in an exaggeratedly rich carbonara, and dense little gnocchi as dumb and as memorable as Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. These are the sensual highs of New York’s cucina italiana. But even our passion for pasta is hobbled by the cowardice and narrow vision of the menumakers. Where is the restaurateur adventurous enough to offer pappardelle noodles with a hare sauce or melting little gnocchi buried in a soufflé puff as they do them in Capri, or spaghetti tossed in an uncooked “gazpacho” marinated overnight in oil as Filippo of Ischia does it?

           

          I dream of the restaurant that will call itself PASTA! Not just a quick-lunch gimmick, but dedicated to the pasta faith, exploring the treasury of regional whim, everything cooked to order, properly al dente…offering not only slow-cooked sauces that brew all day but also those swift last-minute blendings of the very best oil and fresh-snipped herbs. Till the miracle, we indulge our passion for dining Italian as follows, rated on this scale: ****indicates excellence; ***superiority; **considerable merit; *some merit; $ good value.

 

***

 

Romeo Salta ***

 

          Even now, forefinger poised over the letter “R,” I cannot quite believe I am about to nominate Romeo Salta as the best and most adventurous oasis of la cucina italiana in this pastamaniacal odyssesy. There are so many nagging flaws in the house of the proud (pronounce it) Ro-Máy-O. Six dollars is a stiff tag for a plate of spaghetti. Excite the gourmand appetite with an innocence of tender tortellini, and you can easily leave behind $100 to satiate that hunger and quench the modest thirst of four. The room itself, though scarcely an outrage or an insult, is determinedly undistinguished -- densely tabled and wrapped in a mercantile frieze of bottles and books, with indirect fluoresce, both red and white. 

 

          And how slow the service is when the house is full. Even with only a few tables occupied, the waiters seem lost or confused. At two recent lunches, the crowd ran to liver spots, gentle fossils happily gumming away. But I am assured by Romeo regulars that the geriatrics are scarcely noticeable when Sinatra is in the house, or Fellini, or Sophia, Marcello and Gianni Agnelli, or John V. Lindsay with a trio of astronauts in tow, or Henry Kissinger saluting the New Year.

 

          Become a loyal subject and there is nothing Romeo won’t do for you…a cotoletta the way Mama used to do it Bergamo. Just ask. He may name the dish for you -- as in breast of turkey “Ed Sullivan” or fettuccine “Fiorello” -- and excise your name should you offend him. All this, forgivable…if only Salta’s were more reliable. Though pasta is its glory -- its variety and execution makes mere man humble -- still the noodles are sometimes tacky, the tortellini ever-so-slightly soggy, a spaghetti stingily sauced. One evening the spinach-tinted cannelloni, usually sublime, were tough and thick. The broth those tender little pockets of chicken-dumpling float in was fatally anemic.

           

          But the odds at Romeo Salta are with us. The trout alive only minutes ago, navigating the tank before your very eyes, is now tender, perfectly cooked, served in a delicate pool of parsleyed lemon butter. Animelle “Gastronomica” are an exquisite rendition of sweetbreads, lemony, nutty, sweet, tender. And the zuppa di pesce is a spicy, gutsy bouillabaisse of bass, calamari, octopus, clams, mussels, a tiny lobster tail, scallops and shrimp. For quiet drama, a handsome juicy veal chop, flecked with mushrooms and prosciutto in wine, is delivered to table in a paper bag.

 

          Gnocchi-celebrants may crack under the blissful pain. Shall it be gnocchi di semolina au gratin or gnocchi di patate? Or gnocchi “Mamma Siepi”?...The egg-rich potato dough comes wrapped like a jelly roll around a filling of spinach, ricotta and parmesan, nutmeg-scented. Cannelloni, spinach-green and stuffed with a delicate mincemeat of chicken, sweetbreads and cheese, is bathed in a glazed cream sauce and named for Anna Maria Sabatini of the famed Florentine restaurant clan. A personal weakness: paglia e fieno papalina, green and white straw-thin noodles with peas and prosciutto in a creamy sauce under a hailstorm of parmesan.

 

          The menu is eclectic, mostly Northern, with dazzling à la carte variety at dinner (entrees $6 to $12.25, plus a 60-cent bread and butter charge) and an abbreviated but adventurous range at lunch (antipasto, entrée, dessert and coffee, $7.50 and $8.50).

 

          There are the usual meager Italian dessert clichés at lunch plus a very eggy custard in almond-scented caramel (not enough sauce) and an ice cream-stuffed éclair swimming in caramel-streaked zabaglione. And real espresso. After dark, la dolce vita is more adventurous: fried cream flambée, baked Alaska and tangerine ice in its own shell.  But our captain flatly refused to flame or fry anything as a climax to our $98 dinner for four. He was pushing the cannoli…for a hasty exit.

 

30 West 56th Street

 

***

 

Nanni’s *** $

           

          Homely little joint, Nanni’s. Not a single vibration of promise. But wait. What is this?...Ten o’clock and a dozen solid-looking stalwarts of the lasagna faith are arriving for dinner. The earth trembles.

 

          Nanni’s is the newest discovery of the town’s big-time gastronomes, Italian Division. They do not agree. Those who wilt without elegance find Nanni’s hand a bit heavy. His champions prize Nanni’s earthy Amatriciano vigor. Sauce Nanni -- on tender fresh fettuccine ($3.75), fine green, almost translucent capelli d’angelo ($4) -- is a joy: bits of mushroom, both wild and domestic sautéed in butter with prosciutto, wine-splashed, enriched with cream and essence of tomato (all à la carte pastas come with arugola salad). A dazzling, impeccably baked sea bass with mussels, and a hint of rosemary, arrives in foil wrap. The menu runs all day and is hauntingly familiar. But there are daily specials, a $5 lunch, a full trencherman’s dinner at $7.50 and $9, and Nanni can be led into uncharted territory.

 

          Start with a magnificence of steamed mussels stacked high in a giant mixing bowl ($3.75). Or clams areganata ($1.75). After a dreary parade of rubbery clams elsewhere, it was reassuring to find Nanni’s infinitely vulnerable bivalves, heavily crumbed but moist and flavorful. Ziti baked with eggplant ($3.50) was a fine idea, primitively executed. And spaghetti all’Amatriciana ($3.75) was so sharp from it ration of pecorino cheese, I found it unpleasant. A smilar sharp bite in the pesto was more pleasing. And spaghetti carbonara ($3.75) was adrift in a sublime cholesterol sea. Parmesan is hand-grated to order or dispatched by bowl, depending upon the press of traffic. Salad spiked with tangy arugola is beautifully dressed, and broccoli comes crisp, brightly green.

           

          Dessert cakes are adolescently sweet, but there may be strawberries or peaches in a fine wine sauce. Then come amaretti with wrappers to twist, ignite and send flying toward the ceiling, and Nanni himself to win you with Sambuca, the anise-flavored liqueur served “con mosca, with a fly, a coffee bean.” Chew it…eau de garlic vanishes.

 

146 East 46th Street

 

***

 

La Trattoria del Pappagallo ***

           

          The room is so plain, so tacky, and School Street in Glen Cove is so suburban, so unassuming, it is a shock to discover the splendid North Italian artistry of La Trattoria del Pappagallo. What a clumsy space and yet the flames are leaping as if in spring training for the Forum of the Twelve Caesars. And here is Renato, a vested gray flannel vision of dapperness. How silkily he dips the edge of a goblet in sugar, ignites a draught of anisette and then feeds the blue flame a bath of espresso…caffé “prime vera” ($1.75), a wonderfully ridiculous finale to an impressive evening.

 

          To start, rich coral cream of carrot soup ($1); raw mushrooms ($1.15) sliced thin as veneer, tossed in lemon and oil, herbed and lightly garlicked; clams poached in white wine, with a little garlic, sauced with a purée, half vegetable, half tomato, flecked with rosemary; Sicilian eggplant ($1.95), sautéed and then layered with tomato, mortadella, gruyère and zesty crumbs, or an antipasto, not the usual gleaning of jars and tins but princely cuttings of prosciutto, salami and mortadella with olives and mushrooms in vinaigrette…and on the table, your own round crusty loaf baked for the house.

           

          The pasta can be spectacular, tossed tableside with great élan by Renato. A killer linguine carbonara is flecked with bits of bacon and prosciutto, and heavily creamed (to temper the saltiness of the pork, says Renato), not classic but sublime. Homemade tortellini are stuffed with minced chicken and veal in a cheese-flecked cream sauce. The entrees have a rare subtlety, a sense of sophistication: The veal scaloppini -- with lemon, Marsala or layered with eggplant and cheese -- has remarkable flavor. There is partridge in a peppery cream sauce with white raisins, filet of sole stuffed with shrimp and graced with hollandaise-enhanced meunière. The kitchen does a saddle of lamb for four ($26), seasoned with sage, rosemary and garlic and blanketed with buttery crumbs, and there is a big mellow Barolo on the wine list worthy to drink with it.

 

          Then you can have a Grand Marnier soufflé ($6 to serve 4) with a tangerine-apricot sauce…it comes nicely caramelized along the edges, not quite creamy enough through the middle and deserves Asti spumante, brut. Everything is à la carte. At dinner, entrees start at $3.25 for kidneys and go to $7.25 for steak. A drastically tailored lunch menu is an exercise in thrift.

 

          La Trattoria del Pappagallo’s kitchen ranks with the best of Manhattan, but the trek to Glen Cove is admittedly more perilous than a taxi ride cross-town.

           

40 School Street, Glen Cove, L.I.

 

***

 

San Marco **1/2

 

          San Marco seems just another narrow, unassuming restaurant in a block dedicated to the fine art of eating, 55th between the haute of La Caravelle and the mediocrity of Toledo. And for one magic evening, San Marco could do no wrong. Gamberi San Marco, tender shrimp split and broiled, were served with a tart understatement of sauce. Crusty skewered “spedino romana” -- anchovy-spiked cheese and crouton -- was a melting richness of textures. There were clams baked with bacon, moistly crumbled, and clams steamed in an impeccable wine broth, and clams kicky with garlic, tossed over thin vermicelli.

 

          Six vigorous appetites sampled the vermicelli, shared a moist, saffron-scented risotto and ziti baked with eggplant. Still there was room for the very best veal, plume de veau, fork tender: cotoletta magneta, stuffed with cheese, prosciutto and pâté; in scaloppini with bits of prosciutto in white wine, and al limone, delicate thin little cutlets in a smart lemon-butter sauce (everything à la carte, entrees from $5 to $8).

           

          The osso buco had attained a velvety tenderness without succumbing to bitterness or near-disintegration. And there was the San Marco house garnish, crema fritta, lemon-scented custard, cut into diamonds, batter-dipped and deep-fried. Then bel paese at room temperature, homemade rum cake (one layer wet, the other curiously dry) and the by now familiar frozen éclair bathed in a deep nutty cold zabaglione streaked with chocolate.

           

          The room was somewhat noisy, the tables admittedly close and the décor uninspired (the wine-bottle frieze and the gladiola buds in little squat vases trace the owners’ credential to the school of Romeo Salta). But the fine North Italian hand in the kitchen and the proud, warm, professional service blurred any flaws.

           

          Then at lunch (table d’hôte from $5.50 to $8.25 -- no extra charge for espresso), sweet genius began to stumble. The little crescents of chicken dumpling, cappelletti, were tough and dull. The broth they floated in was almost tasteless, nothing could camouflage the stringy overgrilled flesh of broiled chicken. A second lunch, in the chill of February, ended so dismally, it took effort to recall the brilliance of its beginning. What intimations of perfection: silky smooth pâté, perhaps a bit too cold but nicely seasoned. Cappelletti, this time tender, in a soup with proud blobs of genuine chicken. Manicotti and cannelloni were available in combination -- silken green noodles, one filled with sage-scented meat, the other a piquant creamy-blend of ricotta and mozzarella, lightly blanketed with a sophisticated tomato sauce.

 

          Then the downfall. Sweetbreads of impeccable pedigree but unimaginatively served. A disintegrating rolatine of veal, pedestrianly stuffed. Sandy spinach. And a bowl of mussels, “like the French do it,” the captain promised, in a broth that tasted more of Esso than of olive. It was a spectacularly dismal finale from a kitchen I had come to trust.

 

52 West 55 Street.

 

***

 

Aperitivo ** (1/2)   

 

            Aperitivo is crowded, noisy, infinitely popular. And host Paolo Magnano is all-over-the-store, a squatter Rocky Graziano with the bubbling sincere solicitude that is so unchic these days. You don’t have to be Dow-Jonesed, Social-Registered, Best-Dressed or Literally-Established, to be happy at Aperitivo, though many are. An everyday knockout female arrests Paolo’s hebephrenic dither anytime. Bewitched by the siren beauty of my companion, Barbara Baci, Paolo plied us with bits of this and that, confirming: his wife’s homemade pastas can be sublime. Plume de veau is breathtaking in delicate lemon-sauced scallops and dazzlingly robust in gargantuan, boned, baked and crustily browned under the broiler all’osso Milanese. Home-cooking will never rival haute cuisine, but there are days when home-cooking truly pleases.

 

          Both the eye and the ear are under instant assault here. The décor is a raucous clutter, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, enthusiastic…possibly even sweet. Tiny tables crowded close breed noise and intimacy. “May I have the marrow from your osso buco if you’re not going to eat it?” asks the man at the next-virtually-adjoining table. Still, the decision-making center is not over-taxed. The à la carte menu focuses on perhaps a dozen and a half proven familiars (entrees from $3.75 to $7 at lunch, $4.50 to $7.50 at dinner). Pasta lovers will survive identity crises and anxiety attack by scorning the gnocchi (stingily, boringly sauced) and resisting spaghetti. Spaghetti is spaghetti (unless you’re programmed for nothing but--). But the homemade agnolotti ($3.50 at lunch) is a generous pocket of fluffy spinach-spiked minced meat. Choose tagliatelle “Aperitivo” ($4) and you hit a pastamaniacal jackpot -- homemade, handcut noodles, both green and white, with scattered chicken-stuffed tortellini in rich cheese-laced cream. Coppa di Gamberetti is a mélange of chopped shrimp, endive, celery and lettuce in a pink Louis sauce. The sea food special antipasto assembles three crisply crumbed baby clams and two tender but tasteless scampi. In season, fresh figs adorn the prosciutto. Minestrone and the pasta-and-bean soup are mighty brews. But why so weak a brodo?

 

          Entrees are cooked with care and disappoint only in their familiarity, though the cold roast veal in a vitello tonnato was uncuttable. Arugola and endive are refreshing restoratives of faith. And then there is Angelina Magnano’s Key-lime pie. Creamily it collapses in an exquisites cloud. Everyone gets amaretti but on a recent visit I detected a snob petit four—Angelina’s bugie. Those crisp fried twisted pastry ribbons dusted with powdered sugar seem to be reserved for only the ultimate V.I.P. Don’t cry, Barbara Baci.

 

29 West 56th Street

 

***

 

Giambelli-50th **(1/2)

   

          Frank Giambelli flirts with greatness. Take the truffle festival. “It’s the greatest first truffle festival in the history of America,” he trumpeted (ignoring Barbetta’s annual fete for the white fungus “diamonds” of Alba). Well, it was a first for Giambelli-50th, and truffle salad was tagged at $25, but a shaving of truffle atop pasta or veal cost a mere $8 or $12.

 

          Giambelli’s ebullient spirit is reflected in the menu’s depth and daring, the steep prices and the sleek confidence of the clientele. On my left two men in custom-tailored denim were analyzing the erotic erg of a silver Porsche. The nuances of silver Porsches fascinate but cannot cloud the critical faculties sufficiently to ignore over-floured sauces or frozen peas not skillfully thawed or clams of plebeian texture and disappearing waiters who fail to clear dirty dishes or take eight minutes to fetch the check.

 

          Though the kitchen of Giambelli can produce knockout delivery, its performance is sadly, wildly uneven. Does anyone care? Perhaps not. The house is jumping. A one o’clock reservation can mean fifteen minutes at the bar. At lunch (complete $7.50 to $9.50) the crowd is mostly stag. The stalwarts return for dinner with wife and/or inamorata. If the dear girl is famished, the check for two may run $55.

 

          The room is dark and beams illuminate the undistinguished paintings. Better if they shone directly on the pasta…more worthy of the glow. Well, sometimes. The fettuccine was heavier than the Kultur Maven fancies it, but ethereal even so in a delicious embarrassment of whipped sweet butter (fresh from the Breakstone carton) and cream, showered with cheese. At lunch we asked for delizie della pastorella, gnocchi with ricotta and spinach. “It will take two and a half hours,” the waiter warned. Reluctantly we settled for the Thursday special, tortellini gratinati finanziera -- plump pasta hats filled with herbed ground meats and cheeses tossed in a sophisticated liaison off cheese, tomato, meat and eggplant, an intoxicating alternative.

           

          The soaring dinner prices are numbing. But there are some fresh ideas: paglia e fieno, those thin green and white noodles called straw and hay; gnocchi with sausage; risotto with mushrooms; fish soup Capri and clam stew Sorrentina. Shrimp and scampi come in a dozen ways, chicken is baked with zucchini, eggplant and  cheese or with chicken liver, and veal is stuffed and layered and sautéed and respected for its pristine character in a pailard de vitello gratellata. There are a dozen salads and a Galliano soufflé, $8 for two, plus spectacular fresh berries in season.

           

          The entrees sampled were as uneven as everything else. So much for the erg of our dynamic host Giambelli, impresario of flawed greatness.

           

46 East 50th Street.

 

***.

 

Trattoria da Alfredo **

           

          The Trattoria da Alfredo is almost…almost marvelous. With time, discipline, increased precision, it could be a tiny little miracle on Bank Street, shattering cliché. Imagination cooked-to-order. Instant charm has been imposed upon this orphan storefront, but lightly, whimsically, with Beardsley and Art Deco posters, fake grotesquerie, Brentano Greek friezes and ferns suspended from the ceiling in wire basket. Through a drip of blue glass beads you can watch Alfredo, hero of the tiny kitchen, in his chic blue denim work-shirt and red bandanna ascot. Not a table is empty. The turnover is constant, with standees still milling at 11 p.m. You bring your own wine. Two waiters run a marathon but Alfredo, dashing from the steam table to greet a friend, seems to thrive on pressure. The pace is slow. The crusty cracked-wheat bread is not to be denied. “Don’t stuff yourself with bread,” the waiter warns.  

 

          This is service by your peers, if not your betters. After the first shock, you may decide the basic socialist within you loves it. “Don’t sit down,” the waiter commands. “Suffer,” he declaims, delivering an order of celery and salami cooked in casserole ($3.25). “This is the dish you should have ordered,” indicating a tender tasty beef roll ($4) lined with garlic, sage, parsley, prosciutto and mozzarella. “And too late, it’s all gone now.”

           

          But celery and salami in a casserole is what’s so appealing about Alfredo’s menu, an admirable original that runs all day, except that sandwiches are served only at lunch and two or three meat dishes are added for dinner. Otherwise, it’s pasta, ten ways, properly al dente, with sauces of both long, slow melding and fast, last-minute subtlety. Vegetables too often abused and ignored elsewhere are here the game. Asparagus, broccoli, zucchini stuffed with sausage, peppers as Biffi does them in Milan -- with tuna, capers, black olives, and bread crumbs. Stronzata di verdure miste e cotecchino ($3.50), is a vegetable sampler with slices of a heroic garlic sausage served with an extraordinary green sauce -- capers, anchovies, minced onion, parsley and herbs…what a sublime sauce it would make for pasta. But the vegetables at lunch were all overcooked. Alfredo refused to believe it. Only when a disappointed vegetable-lover insisted -- sweetly, politely, but unanswerably -- did he finally concede the possibility.

           

          That lunch, with the room sparsely filled, was a disappointment. The fish soup, so handsomely served in its own enamelware tureen, was so freshly made, it tasted not quite ready, almost flavorless though the creatures of the sea were poached to precise perfection. An enormous artichoke was undercooked, its heart scarcely cuttable. And the spaghetti carbonara, with large cubes of bacon, was not as creamy as it might have been.

 

          But dinner with traffic near the panic point was a joy: primitive penne arrabbiate ($3), giant ziti with hearts of artichoke baked in meat sauce, perciatelli (fat spaghetti) in a sharp Amatriciana ($2.75) sauce (bacon, fresh tomato, red crushed pepper) and tortellini della Nonna ($3.50) doughy little dumplings elusively stuffed with peas and prosciutto in a rich cream sauce. The cheese sits on an old oak buffet, happily at room temperature, and there is creamy zabaglione with fresh strawberries ($1.75). Sweets, listed on the menu as homemade -- “that is a fraud,” Alfredo admits. “It didn’t work out.” -- are inspired imports from a bakery.

 

          The Trattoria da Alfredo is already a mecca. So Alfredo may never be forced to reach that extra inch for perfection. Perhaps he’ll need all his stretch merely to survive success a near-marvel unadulterated.

 

90 Bank Street corner Hudson

 

***

 

San Marino **

 

          Affluent innocents and affluent cognoscenti alike rate San Marino Manhattan’s foremost North Italian restaurant. What is wrong with San Marino is what is wrong with America’s most celebrated Italian kitchens: ennui, cowardice, scorn. Frog’s legs Provencale, pompano amandine, Dover sole meunière, broiled Long Island scallops, breast of capon flambé -- this could be the dining room of a Hilton Hotel.

 

          If Tony Gugnoni has abandoned the hearty, lusty trencherman’s tradition of his native Emilia-Romagna for sliced turkey Mornay and broiled lamb chops, we are, perhaps, both victim and author of the crime. Is it fair to attack San Marino for its narrow vision of our Italian appetite? Still, the sole and chops are usually done well and there is a scattering of fine Italian notions. Striped bass acqua pazza (literally, crazy water) is baked and perfumed with lemon and garlic. Veal chop San Marino exploits the very best veal, a giant cut with a pocket full of prosciutto and nutty gruyère. Calamari stuffed with crabmeat is a fine inspiration but the sauce overpowers. In summer there is thin, tender, cold veal in a creamy tuna sauce, and the sea-food salad, listed year-round as an hors d’oeuvre, makes a tangy refreshing lunch. Baked mussels are served on the half shell, crumbed and studded with parsley, scallion and oregano. Vegetables are consistently cooked near disintegration, then bathed in butter, but an order of deep-fried shoestring zucchini was superb.

 

          All noodles are homemade but offered in such an offhand style…no theater tableside or careful last-minute saucing. That may explain why pastas arrive in a slightly tacky state. But I remember exquisite gnocchi, feathery yet with an admirable character, in a zesty pesto more strongly garlicked than herbed, and creamy, rich, green lasagna, layered with ground beef and tomato sauce.

 

          Good food and brusque, indifferent service has been the San Marino flaw. If only the ingredients were reversed. With the room scarcely one third occupied, the welcome was princely. What chivalry. To be relieved of one’s coat, guided…indeed, deposited in a chair, lap napped and undividedly attended to. Soiled plates whisked away and, for the first time ever, a credit card is honored: a benign mutation of the recession’s pinch. But the food was grimly mediocre.

 

          The table d’hôte lunch ranges from $4.75 to $6.50. Entrees on the a la carte dinner start at $5.75 with steak at $7 and lobster at $12 plus 50 cents for bread and butter. The décor is almost unobtrusive—Formica grillwork, ceramics, fake vines, gastronomic citations. And the tables are benevolently spaced.

 

236 East 53rd Street

 

***

 

Italian Pavilion **

 

            Partisans of the Italian Pavilion salute the spiciness of its zuppa di pesce, the majesty of its veal cutlet Milanese and the wit of its delicate gnocchi. But at the risk of being prematurely remaindered by the powers of publishing, let me be brutally honest: taste was long ago conquered by talk at the Italian Pavilion. And though some of its publishing regulars have graduated to The Brussels, Le Madrigal, lunch-in-the-office and the drinking man’s diet, the Italian Pavilion is still a book world hangout, a stadium for the haute table hop, the literary job scan. In the shadow of such crucial ritual, mere nutrition becomes inconsequential. But, as might be predicted, the bartender is without peer. Lunch, whether ego or corporal nurture, is à la carte, entrees from $3.25, dinner entrees start at $4.25.

           

          And the osso buco is better than most with its added zest of fresh grated lemon peel and moist saffron risotto. Piccata alla Milanese is fork tender in lemon butter; al dente linguine, memorable, swimming in a perfection of parsley-flecked clam sauce. In summer, tender poached salmon rivals its competition anywhere in town, and the vitello tonnato is legendary for its skillful blend of tuna, anchovy, capers, oil and cream. Not everyone understands the cult of zuppa inglese. Bantam Books’ Bob Silverstein thinks it smells of rosewater, “as if it just had a shave.” With serious zuppa-worshippers, however, the Italian Pavilion’s is a model of opulence.

 

          But when competence breaks down, the kitchen produces tired fettuccine with leathery curliques of prosciutto, scampi with the bitter aftertaste of burned garlic and a juiceless proletarian suprema di pollo. The garden has been caged in with glass because the neighbors complained. That room is no-man’s land, anyway. Happily, the bustle and warmth of hospitality blurs all dissonance.

 

24 West 55th Street.

 

***

 

Giambelli **

           

          Certainly Albert Giambelli runs one of our town’s better North Italian restaurants. Those are hip and demanding Italians on the next banquette. Service has warmth and grace. The veal is excellent, the pasta fresh, the menu ambitious. And then the check…dinner for four with tip, $104. Perhaps it was an accumulative insult that finally erupted in anger at Giambelli.* At that price I want dazzle. Only one of our four had it: trenette, thin egg noodles in a masterful pesto, gentle (minus the bite of sharp aged pecorino) but boldly scented with garlic and house-preserved basil.

 

          Then as an entrée, calamaretti fritti, tiny delicate baby squid, deep-fried, very fresh, very rich. For the rest, the nagging disappointment of good but uninspired performance. Fine sweetbreads with mushrooms and peas in an herb-and-tomato-scented wine sauce…good enough, but no match for Romeo Salta’s sweetbread design. Breasts of chicken, breaded and sautéed…good enough but what a dull statement. And filetto alla Rossini, not the best beef but good enough, adequately sauced, topped with acceptable foie gras…no fireworks.  Tortellini, fettuccine, merely good. Tasty scampi, tender and caked with moist crumbs, strangely mushy.

 

          Two lunches (complete from $7, mostly $8) confirmed the sense of sincerity and care minus any bonus of excitement. Perhaps fine French restaurants have spoiled me. Still, there is an army of New Yorkers for whom the clichés of Italo-American cooking are the ultimate gastronomic high. And there are 13,993 restaurants in New York, enough to indulge all our eccentricities.

 

238 Madison Avenue (near 37th Street)

 

*This is the original. A schism between brothers spawned the Giambelli on East 50th Street.     

 

Casa Mario **

 

          Cruel neglect grays the mood of Casa Mario. Busy enough at lunch, it was almost a wasteland one winter Thursday at eight. (Perhaps that’s why such noble offerings as bollito misto, osso buco and fried cream flambé were not available.) The indifference is wanton…utterly undeserved. The kitchen here is capable of greatness -- one evening there was excellent braesola and broiled striped bass cooked precisely to the point of perfection. Even on its normal plateau, the fare is as good, the menu as ambitious as you’d find at the town’ dozen best Northern Italian restaurant. And the service is polite, efficient, positively elegant. It took only a whit too much persistence to persuade our captain to serve half-portions of four different pastas. Soon we were surrounded by waiters and serving carts and warming stands as everything was sauced and tossed -- tortellini Bolognese, spaghetti alla carbonara, tagliolini noodles baked with a cheesy crust, fettuccine with prosciutto, ricotta and chives, everything good, nothing spectacular.

 

          Baked clams ($2.25) were tender, garlic-scented, and crisply crumbed. There was nothing either truly memorable or dreadful in a dinner for four irrepressible gourmands who went through antipasti, pasta, entrees, salad, a fine baked Alaska, zabaglione whisked tableside then served on a mound of Mario’s homemade crème de cacao ice cream, real espresso, a dry white Pomino and a mellow full Barolo ’65, for $82.25 including tip. (A drastically abbreviated menu offers a complete lunch from $3.75.)

           

          Unhappily, neglect demoralizes. The captain, polite enough, seemed utterly disinterested and Mario was wrapped in his accounts while the radio blared the news overhead. Unlove is blind too.

 

136 West 55th Street

 

***

 

Giovanni’s *

 

          If only the dead know Brooklyn, only the positively fossilized truly know Giovanni’s. To say of a Giovanni patron he is old is not to say he is 73. “Old” means family. “Old” means generations of Groton, Princeton and quiet Waspdom. “Old” means old-world, too, Italian aristocrats, impoverished D.P.’s…displaced patricians and titled transients. Old Tigers get service, old Counts get exquisite treats whisked from the kitchen -- dishes that never appear on the same discreet little menu. There are exactly sixteen entrees on the $7 lunch menu and $10.50 dinner menu, if you generously include cannelloni, gnocchi and eggs à la reine. No cuisinary firecracker here. This is the Italian appetite so refined it emerges French: brook trout, filet of sole grand duc, pompano belle meunière, calf’s liver à l’Anglaise…all of it spelled out in franglais and a scattering of Italian, and scarcely changed since 1929 when Giovanni Pramaggiore opened his speakeasy a few doors away.

           

          For insatiable tasters next best to Christmas is being given full freedom at an antipasto cart. Giovanni’s is fresher and more original than most: roasted green peppers (“I make them myself,” Giovanni boasts), celery root rèmoulade, a decent salade russe, stuffed eggs, herring, eggplant vinaigrette, the predictable sardine, olives, pimiento, canned asparagus and artichoke but, ah…the portly old maestro’s pride, minced clams and crabmeat, lightly crumbed, sherry-scented, heaped into the shell, served with tender aspic.

 

          If you have the charm, the pedigree or the proper introduction, Giovanni himself may urge you to try the un-menued foie gras-stuffed pigeon or endive in a shower of truffles. Still, though unexciting, the list offerings are carefully done…well, almost always. At two different meals, zucchini was cooked to dissolution. One summer the lunch ($7 complete; dinner is $10.50) began with a chipped glass and cold braised veal in a sauce effetely scented with tuna, too subtle yet handsomely braced with a salad of julienned chicken, ham, tongue and fennel plus cold carrots and peas.

 

          The gnocchi are semolina darlings, cooked in milk, laced with parmesan, browned under the broiler with butter, cheese and crumbled bacon. The cannelloni were delicate green envelopes stuffed with savory meat, napped with a creamy sauce au gratin. Offered a salad, we asked for rugola…and got it, expertly dressed. Across the room little leaves of cookies come and go. For some reason I practically had to instigate a lawsuit to get some.

 

66 East 55th Steet

 

***

 

Nick and Guido’s *$   

 

            When the S.S. Michelangelo and the S.S. Raffaello are parked in the Hudson River, the crew may run into the crowd from Alitalia and feel at home at Nick and Guido’s where the Genovese owners, Piero Ferro and Attilo Arecco, spell each other at the stove. It’s a seedy little port on West 46th Street almost directly across from the aristocratic Barbetta’s. Not a flicker of excitement is apt to be stirred by the menu but the food is good and the prices stand astride Underground Gourmet country: $4.25 to $6.25 at dinner, $2.25 to $2.50 at lunch.

 

          Admittedly, the appetizer choice is modest: grapefruit, juice, shrimp cocktail (50 cents extra) or a humble sampler of salami, pimiento, celery, beets, anchovy, a slice of tomato, and some lettuce served with oil and vinegar. Then comes soup, a homemade uninspired minestrone, far less successful than tiny pastina in a robust broth. An attempt to order à la carte was discouraged by our frugal waiter.

 

          “Whatever you want, I’ll give it on the dinner,” he promised. The homemade ravioli were thick pasta packages of nutmeg-scented meat, spinach and cheese in a slow-cooked bolognese sauce, accented with garlic, bay and rosemary. Tortellini, homage to Venus’ navel in noodle dough, myth has it, are here stuffed with minced chicken and prosciutto. Slightly tough sheets of manicotti enclosed creamy ricotta, napped with a lighter tomato sauce and leathery ribbons of cheese. A salty and exhilarating blend of anchovy and oil brought great zest to spaghetti. And all the pastas were served sizzling hot.

 

          With such bountiful prelude, it scarcely mattered that sausages piemontese were only two, a spicy pair grilled and served with a splash of tomato flecked wine. Veal scaloppine was tender, flavorful. The waiter seemed reluctant to serve the last portion of the day’s special, boiled beef alla vinaigrette…”It’s too fat,” he explained. We insisted. And it was a bit fatty but tender, flavorful and served with salsa verde, a somewhat adult version of pickled relish. The only disappointment was shrimps marinara, tough…even so, overwhelmed by the sauce. The door locks at nine sharp. By that time the pastry may be gone and dessert will be that pink-and-white-and-brown fraud Americans call Neapolitan ice cream. Or provolone.

 

          With two very pleasant wines: Verdicchio and a Chianti classico of Frescobaldi ($5 each), dinner for four was $36, tax and tip included. Lunch was a pittance. (Only wine, beer and aperitifs are served.)

 

304 West 46th Street.

 

***

 

Trattoria * (**** for sweets)

           

          Virtue is not its own reward. The Trattoria proves it. If ambition, sincerity and authenticity were enough, the Trattoria would not have retreated now into a semi-decline. The Trattoria was a Restaurant Associates master-work, the quintessential Italian snack-bar-buffet-ice-cream parlor tucked into the cavernous lobby of the PanAm building. Well, it is still the one spot midtown for an Italian breakfast -- melon and prosciutto, an eyeopening minestrone, mozzarella omelette, frittata, panettone and real foamy espresso, brewed by the console-jukebox-caffé machine imported from Verona.

           

          The menu now is prudently pruned, not quite so ambitious. The service is not so warmly three-coins-in-the-fountain. The edge of authenticity has eroded. What used to be an unmistakably Italian stuffed tomato now tastes like lunch at Schrafft’s. The antipasti can still be remarkable though. The whole artichoke ($1.25) is served neatly dechoked, with anchovy, croutons and capers. There is torta rustica ($1.25), a pie of meat, cheese, eggs and spinach. And escarole layered with ground meat, onion and seasoned bread crumbs ($1.05). Mozzarella in carozza, grilled cheese on white bread (for goodness’ sake) is sauced with a devilish liquid, an eau de chili perhaps ($2.45) -- anchovy, the menu says. Caponata ($1.05) can be a fine fate for eggplant and green peppers if both are cooked al dente. At lunch recently the peppers were sublime, the eggplant inedible. And even as a shadow of its early grandeur, the special antipasto platter ($3.50) makes a perfect lunch.

 

          There are sandwiches and omelettes and torta primavera ($2.35), a tower of crêpes layered with cheese, salami, mortadella, prosciutto -- an exquisite heroine sandwich. Even less than perfect pasta can be good. So it is here with the fettuccine, homemade, flecked with sausage, tossed in cream and grated cheese, with a dash of nutmeg. Spinach-flavored lasagna, palest green, is layered with meat sauce under a creamy béchamel. But turkey alla Pappagallo was dry and boring, osso buco was juiceless too. Chicken cacciatore had no flavor at all and the sauce was rudely corn-starched.

 

          Why has the Trattoria retreated? Is the house suffering senility, sloth, the recession’s pangs…or was authenticity too strange for the natives? Still all the sins, the cool, the semi-decline, the waiter forcing one to reclaim soiled forks for another use, all sins pale beside the brilliance of the Trattoria’s resident magician, Lorenzo Dolcino, the pasticceria wizard. His zuppa inglese is the best I’ve ever tasted -- wantonly rich, studded with fruit, scented with sweet liqueurs, paved with chocolate shavings. And there is always the richest ice cream in town, brilliantly flavored from Dolcino’s laboratory of imported potions, smartly sophisticated ices, and his wicked dark and haunting tartufo, still served, alas, too frozen to saver…let it thaw a bit.

 

45th Street entrance to the PanAm Building

 

***.

 

Lino’s U.N. Restaurant *

 

            A typical myopia of New York’s Italian restaurants is neglect of the chestnut. For that we must be grateful…even if it doesn’t always work. Sweet bits of candied chestnut lend an offbeat charm to filet mignon cardinale ($5.85), with mushrooms and morsels of red pepper in a rich brown sauce but the sweetness is an intrusion in cenacolo dei doge ($7.45) -- lobster, shrimp and clams in a delicate tomato-wine sauce. Clearly, Lino is more than your everyday macaroni-pusher. Long ago he served in the galley of a ship commanded by the Duke d’Aoasta and the Duke of Spoleto. They wanted inventive cuisine that would not surround them with an aura of garlic. That is why Lino’s U.N. Restaurant menu is so rhapsodic: veal cutlet romichel ($4.40) has the kick of Roquefort; filet mignon. Elsa ($5.85) is a version of steak Diane with mangoes, and lobster Fabiana ($5.65) is flamed with cognac and sprinkled with chestnut.

           

          Thus it was with high hopes that the Accademia Italian Della Cucina came to the shoals of Second Avenue in black tie and jeweled Valentino to dine Casa Lino. Five importers donated the wines. L’Accademia flew in their own fresh white truffles that very afternoon. And Lino’s doused the shrimp in salsa Liguria, molded the cappelletti in brodo, stuffed the zucchini, chestnutted the beef, and brought the group to a near-snit over a curious salad, iceberg lettuce served with two exotic sauces—one black (grappa-marinated prunes mashed with pignoli nuts), the other red, white and green (scallions, red pepper and parsley in vinegar and oil).

 

          “You can’t serve a salad that way,” Accademico-Nazionale Hedy Maria Giusti-Lanham scolded host Lino, “since we are grownup, after all.”

 

          In civilian life, Lino’s kitchen rarely rises above a raffish mediocrity. The only real triumph was knockout potato-semolina gnocchi with ricotta in a fresh, garlicky pesto. At lunch, tastily crumbed baked clams ($2.85) were rubbery. It made no sense to serve tuna ($1.85) in a naked lump with white beans, onion and tomato on the side, crying for expert blending. The minestrone ($.85) was impotent and funghi e cipolline ($1.50) were canned mushrooms and sour onions in a brooding, unpleasant gravy. Cannelloni ($2.50) were stuffed with tough gristles of meat. There was an interesting gamy taste to the ravioli filling but the pasta pockets were tough and thick. All the pastas and two entrees were similarly sauced and identically bannered with leathery ribbons of cheese—hearty, flavorful, filling, no more.

 

          Best of the lunch choices was a zesty veal stew with red and green peppers ($2.80). A la carte entrees start at $2.30 for pasta, with fish and meat dishes mostly under $3.50, prices about 20 per cent higher at dinner. There are the usual desserts plus a rum-soaked baba with cream and a sweet barbarian cheesecake. Anisette is served with Neapolitan espresso.

           

547 Second Avenue near 30th Street

 

***

 

Ballato *

           

          Toward the climax of this odyssey, the quest for North Italian distinction, despair bred desperation. And hope pointed to Ballato, ancestry clearly Sicilian, yet in spirit a respected cognoscento assured me, the most authentic Italian trattoria in town. Not one to be swayed by the presence of Phillip Roth or signed affections from Danny Thomas, Al Capp or Twiggy…even so, I felt intimations of authentica. It begins with the pleasure of discovering warmth and cheer in the barren plains of East Houston Street among the mysterious storefronts and factory lofts.

 

          At the door there is John Ballato himself, a Sicilian Colonel Sanders. He can be charming…or arrogant, refusing to give you an empty table if you neglected to reserve. And the young waiter from Dubrovnik is unfailingly cheerful. There is no wine list. He brings a selection of reds or whites to the table. Asked what’s good today, “What would you tell your brother?” he replies. “I’d tell him to go to Florida.” He divides a half order of cannelloni, then a half order of lasagna, patiently, with style, as if he were carving a saddle of lamb.

 

          The same menu runs through the day. Almost all entrees are under $4. Lunch begins with extraordinary wrinkled little olives -- braised in wine with herbs. At dinner, the same olives and fresh fennel. That is the height of a meal at Ballato, though the fare is certainly edible and an occasional rough but tasty triumph filters through. The hot antipasto ($2) tenders clam and mussel and slices of zucchini, eggplant and peppers variously stuffed. There is a cold antipasto di casa ($2.25) with an heroic array of vegetables, pickled and marinated in a very sharp vinaigrette, and pork head, mortadella and salami -- on two plates.

 

          Tender thin manicotti is stuffed with parsley-flecked cheese, in a rather flat tomato sauce. Cannelloni in silky cream sauce has a gamy cargo of minced brains, sweetbreads, chicken, meat and parmesan. The green fettuccine is a homey eccentric, swimming in ricotta-thickened milk with a bit of tomato essence on top, odd and good ($3.25). Beef roll, a daily special, is stuffed with raisins and pignoli, the meat cooked to near-disintegration…special taste. But zuppa di pesce ($4) is an unequivocal success: excellent mussels, clams, tiny whole fish and cuts of red snapper in a tasty tomato-enhanced broth.

 

          Osso buco arrives in fine texture with a tiny fork upended in its hollow to scoop the marrow. But rice in listless gray gravy is not risotto. There is a superb salad, a dense sweet homemade cheesecake and a gloppy chocolate vanilla-and-cerise zuppa inglese. And from his spot at the staff’s lunching table, the waiter, as if summoned by ESP, arrives with a refill of fresh hot Neapolitan espresso at exactly the moment you were about to summon him.

           

55 East Houston Street (near Mott)

 

***

 

          Just as I was correcting the spelling and inserting one last whiff of garlic in this report, the telephone rang and a voice, refusing to identify itself -- “Let us say a friend-of-a-friend” -- left this message: “Try Brione’s in Brooklyn. It’s the best North Italian restaurant in town according to State Senator John Marchi.”

           

          The messenger is waiting to take this copy to the printer. I am off to Bay Ridge. The quest for the great regional Italian restaurant has not ended. Buon appetito.

 

***

 

Two Cheers for Italian Wine

 

          The serious wine drinker must find Italian wines quite maddening. They defy pomposity. For with rare and scattered exceptions, Italian wine is either pleasant to drink or unpleasant to drink, a thirst-quencher, the essential sap to escort the princely chop or the proletarian noodle. It is rarely something to sniff and gasp over, to chew, to sigh, to lyricize. It refreshes. It stings. It’s a little bit sweet or fruity or nutty or tart. It bubbles. It’s insipid. At times it smells of sulphur. I have yet to taste a really stylish, complex wine of Italy--nothing clever, nothing memorable, nothing frankly very distracting. (An exception: A 1952 Brolio Chianti classico from the cellar of Barone Ricasoli, served at dinner in his honor).

           

          The wine lists of most Italian restaurants are modest, brief and predictable. But the reach is growing. Here is a sample: The reds of Piemonte are the most highly sung, all made form the Nebbiolo grape: Barolo, rich and full, goes from ruby red to almost black. Barbaresco, lighter than Barolo but big, less rugged. Gattinara,noble tannin-rich, sharp when young. The best Barbera is from Asti; other Barberas come from Alessandria, Turin and Piemonte, vigorous and ruby-red. Freisa is a dry red, with a faint taste of raspberry (there is also a sweeter Freisa and a sparkling version)

 

          From the province of Verona, Valpolicella, the wine which the colonel and his love took with them into their gondola in Across the River and Into the Trees…fragrant, fruity, light, best before it is five years old. Bardolino, light red, charming…best between one and three years of age. Lambrusco, from Emilia, a sparkling red.

 

          From Tuscany comes Chianti classico, identified by the sign of a black cockerel on a gold ground—Brolio, Antinori, Ruffino, Frescobaldi are some good names. The best of the Brolios is Brolio Riserva. A cherub is the sign of Chianti tipico: among the best, Chianti Ruffina, Nipozzano.

 

          The finest white wine of Italy is Soave, pale straw color, dry, light, delicate (the Veronese neck label identifies true Soave). Cortese is a fresh, light pale white from Piemonte. Orvieto comes from Umbria semisweet or dry (secco). The dry white Verdicchio is a superior white from the Castelli di Jesi, in the foothills of the Apenninies. Lugana is the best of the white Garda wines. Terlano and aromatic Traminer come from the Italian Tyrol. Frascati, dry, full, refreshing, is a favorite in Rome. Lacrima Christi (Tears of Christ) from the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples is less dry and a bit softer than Capri, produced nearby. White Chianti is dry, golden, agreeable, varying. Lacrima d’Arno is dry, young, refreshing with a sharp aftertaste. Est Est Est is the light, slightly sweet white wine from Monefiascone, north of Rome.

 

-G.G.







ADVERTISE HERE