May 27, 2008 | Favorites

Kiss Me, I’m Italian

 Razor clam ribbons “cooked” in lemon juice is a must for us at Esca.  Photo: Steven Richter
Razor clam ribbons “cooked” in lemon juice is a must for us at Esca.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Dinner at an Italian restaurant can be like going home, a childhood revisited, or new worlds encountered (Italian getting lost between France and El Bulli). This city is richly served in Italian. Modest and unassuming. Fiercely regional. Authentic and understated. Down-home family dives and romantic cubbies.  Upscale ambitious fusion. So many choices. Of all the Italians I have loved over the years – these are the places I go to right now.

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Aurora Soho – I fell under the spell of Aurora Soho the first time we went in spite of the unseemly din, loving the vitello tonnato, summer truffles on buttery pasta, pappardelle with braised veal cheeks and tiny asparagus, and the gentle prices. Our  fussy gourmand companions that night, friends who have been back a few times since, say it remains as wonderful as it was then. 510 Broome Street between Thompson and West Broadway. 212 334 9020

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 Barbuto in an old auto shop can be noisy but delicious. Photo: Steven Richter
Bar Pitti
- I don’t often go to Bar Pitti, but whenever I do, I’m amazed to find it still so steadfastly Florentine, so unspoiled by its proximity to the über precious Da Silvano. That garlicky country bread, rustic ribolita, pappardelle with smoked bacon, tomato and cream. Okay, maybe the pasta is a little overcooked and an excess of sauce betrays a sacrifice to American expectations. 268 Sixth Avenue between Bleecker and Houston. 212 982 3300

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Barbuto – I don’t know many foodies who appreciate Barbuto as much as I do.  I’ve braved the clamor of this converted garage again and again for the daring of Jonathan Waxman’s embrace of Italian simplicity: A seasonal salad with shaved brussel sprouts and toasted walnuts, the intensely lemoned spaghetti di mare, linguine with a Ligurian walnut-garlic pesto, roasted cauliflower with black olives and bread crumbs. And fabulous pizza at lunch seven days a week. 775 Washington Street between Jane and West 12th Street. 212 924 9700

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Bocca di Bacco’s penne gorgonzola proves nothing is ever too rich. Photo: Steven Richter

        Bocca di Bacco - Since stumbling on this paradiso - rustic, dimly romantic with a folksy welcome and neighborly prices – I have been sending friends to discover Roberto Passon’s mostly splendid food.  I keep coming back myself for my favorite grilled octopus, a heady fava bean soup with marscapone afloat, dangerously rich penne gorgonzola and a waitress who is like family. I guess I’m not the only mouth to stake a claim at Bocca di Bacco. All the tables were taken and three of us had to sit at the bar last Tuesday. 828 Ninth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets. 212 265 8828

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        Cafe Fiorello - This was once our neighborhood easy fall-into after a movie or Lincoln Center. We mutter and complain at the shocking price creep but we’re still here: sharing the vegetable antipasto (I point out my choices at the buffet myself), sometimes followed by a pasta - seafood linguine - or even a sirloin strip that we also share.  Plus a carafe of red wine. Last week the minestrone was shockingly good and shareable too. Fiorellos obscenely rich pizza-like lasagna (it’s delicious and godawful all at once) needs three or four to do it justice. 1900 Broadway between 63rd and 64th Streets. 212 595 5330

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        Celeste - Yes, it’s cash only, tables are up for grabs (no reservations) and we’re packed into Celeste like anchovies. But my guy and I often stuff ourselves into a miniscule two-top for our favorite pizza in town, slender paragons of crispness. The Road food Warrior must have the anchovy’d Napoletano, and the house indulges me with something else on the other half, often the pizza of the day that might involve some exotic cheese from Carmine-the-Cheese-Maestro’s storied collection. I might order the tricolore salad and take one forkful of Steven’s pacheri pasta with ricotta and tomato. Then I let Carmine choreograph a five cheese tasting as my entrée.  I eat oatmeal in penance for the next three mornings. 502 Amsterdam Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets. 212 874 4559

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Chef-partner Michael White gets it right at Convivio on second try. Photo: Steven Richter

        Convivio - Although the critics embraced his new menu at Alto, Michael White wasn’t happy with less than raves for his complex creations at L’Impero in Tudor City. Then he and partner Chris Cannon bolted the door for two weeks and invented Convivio: new look, pared-down prices, a $59 four-course prix fixe, and a wonderfully winning rustic style for the Southern Italian dishes the chef is smitten with. White is dealing with exactly the same essentials - eggplant, artichoke, octopus, quail, sweetbreads - but the look and taste is dramatically different. I especially like the small snacks called sfizi, the bold antipasti and marvelous house-made pastas. The crew needs discipline alas. 45 Tudor Place at 42nd Street. 212 599 5045

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        Del Posto – Having launched Babbo as Mario Batali’s starship, Esca for fish, Lupa aping a Roman trattoria, Casa Mono to channel tapas, where would Batali and sidekick Joe Bastianich land next?  At Del Posto, a block west of Meatpacking District mania, billed as “the ultimate expression of what an Italian restaurant should be.” Joining the team is
Esca’s Pasternak. Photo: Steven Richter
Joe’s mom, the celebrated Lidia (often glimpsed beating zabaglione into submission before our eyes). Del Posto dares to be wildly expensive – antipasti up to $30, $65 for a veal chop, $120 for a rack of lamb for 2, $175 for the grand tasting. I love the contra-trendy theme, the old fashioned service, the starters and entrée spectaculars – one evening an exquisitely cooked turbot for four. This wily triumvirate quickly sniffed the air and invented a gentler a la carte menu as well as a five course $52 prix fixe in the enoteca.  85 Tenth Avenue at 15th Street. 212 497 8090

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         Esca - As the Road Food Warrior wraps his fork with the last strands of smartly al dente bucatini and scoops the remaining bit of spicy tomato-smeared baby octopus at Esca, he marvels: "Do you realize this is better than any pasta we ate in Italy all winter?" Esca's white-bean-and-mackerel mash on toast has me licking my fingers five times for just three bites. Yes, I know I have a napkin. Sparkling crudo, stirring pastas and fish just hours from the sea are what Chef David Pasternak delivers in this Batali-Bastianich aquarium, our inevitable before and after theater retreat. I’m not sure which is more thrilling: the freshest halibut I’ve ever eaten or Paul Newman walking in with Tom Hanks. 402 West 43rd Street West of Ninth Avenue. 212 564 7272

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        Fiore - How much do I love Fiore?  Enough to hitch a ride to Williamsburg at least once a week since it opened.  Six of us like to start with a pizza or two if not three. Chef Roberto Aita may send out a savory amuse of bay scallops with slivered artichoke hearts or mussels on toast with a parsley garlic broth. Then I like to share a thick cut of nicely cooked fish or a pasta, cavatelli with broccoli and sausage or bucatini amatriciana. And a finale of lemon sorbetto. 284 Grand St. between Havemeyer & Roebling. (718) 782 8222

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        ‘inoteca - Zooming down to the Lower East Side is a $40 round trip and definitely out of our way, epecially annoying knowing the inevitable wait for an unreservable seat. But we do it for ‘inoteca’s well-priced wines by the glass from an extensive cellar, savory small plates, especially the first rate salumi, and the mythic truffle egg toast. 98 Rivington Street near Ludlow. 212 614 0473

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        Insieme - Chef Marco Canova reaches beyond the rustic boundaries of Hearth at Insieme in this not totally felicitous
 Insieme’s bollito misto. Steven Richter
space with the fringed white touches you might see on a blowsy blond showgirl. And he isn’t relying on bizarre juxtapositions to catch our attention. Something as simple and cunning as a hollowed out radish oozing anchovy’d olive oil cues the bravura touches that follow. Baby beef tartare, classic bollito misto, a smartly bright sea urchin risotto, warm semolina cake with olive oil. Traditional dishes line up on the left side of the menu, contemporary, but not madcap notions parade on the right. 777 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street. 212 582 7932

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        Lupa - Dinner at Lupa for six of us begins with sharing the exceptional cured meats and three or four small vegetable starters - brussel sprouts with pecorino, pistachio’d beets, for example. I might add a $10 portion of octopus with chickpeas and sorrel, and the fabulous salad of escarole, walnut, red onion with much too much pecorino.  Then each of us orders an entrée.  For me it’s often oxtail alla vaccinara, but it might be sweetbreads with a lemon gremolata. If it’s Wednesday, the special cod is crisp beyond imagining. Steven can never resist bucatini all’Amatriciana. To be frank, we stayed away for a while because of the relentless noise and no reservation policy, but returned to discover the din muted by sound proofing and reservations now being accepted.  170 Thompson just north of Houston. 212 982 5089

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        Mia Dona –With so many laurels from every corner, it’s no shock to find Chef Michael Psilakis’s head puffed up a bit.  And the demands of fame have partner Donatella Arpaia often AWOL. But with so much really good food and prices that reflect the economic reality of the moment (and a $25 three course lunch), it isn’t easy to score a table at Mia Dona. But when you do, try the fabulous bigoli with sausage and broccoli rabe, the sheep’s milk dumplings, or shockingly lush lasagna-like pacheri in a casserole (let them plop on a lot of fluffy ricotta). A meaty spiedini starter is a perfect entrée and the grill of mixed meats is enough for two. 206 East 58th Street near 2nd Avenue. 212 750 8170

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Even slightly singed, Rao’s garlicky clams are good. Photo: Steven Richter

        Rao’s – It’s a tease to tell you how much fun we have with Monday regulars at Rao’s since it’s virtually impossible to crash this tight little family joint. There is actually a small window of opportunity to woo Frankie “No” Pellegrino in person. A Rao’s night is really about the cast of characters, celebrities and locals, hustlers and guys who look made and women who can be. But even a fussy gourmand like me is happy enough to eat the baked clams, grIlled red peppers with pine nuts, a ridiculous iceberg lettuce salad with not-necessarily ripe tomatoes, and fabulous outsize meatballs in tomato sauce. One evening the chef sent out garlicky penne tossed with sausage and cabbage and I’ve been trying to get it again ever since. It might feel a little less homey when the check arrives. Bring mucho cash. 455 East 114th Street at Pleasant Avenue. 212 722 6709

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        San Domenico - Up till the end Tony May was convinced his landlord would give him a new lease he could live with. But real estate reality can be cruel and unsentimental, even after 20 years of limelight and awards. So now he’s talking about moving midtown with daughter Marisa and the gifted chef Odette Fada and taking San Domenico into the 21st century with a contemporary design by Massimo Vignelli. Given the new think, there will be a less expensive all-day bar menu of small plates. I’ll be stopping by for one last swoon over the mythic soft cooked egg in raviolo swathed with truffle butter before the June 18 closing. 240 Central Park South between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. 212 265 5959

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        Sandro’s – Is the tempermental Sandro Fioretti home at last? This May he’s celebrating a year in Sandro’s, a new plainjane space of his own on the far Upper East Side where well-heeled locals pile in for Sandro classics like sea urchin ravioli with scallops, pasta with lemon sauce and a crusty pancake of slivered artichoke and cuttlefish. Not everyone
 Sandro seems happy again. Photo: Steven Richter
appreciated the iconic Roman dishes this mountainous man brought to town 24 years ago, but the critics did. Then wanderlust and his simmering thermostat took. These days the kitchen can be uneven, but we love his wife’s warm welcome, the cured meats board, flattened fried artichokes, and his outrageous pajama bottom chef’s pants. 306 East 81st Street between First and Second Avenues. 212 288 7374.

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        Sfoglia - Sfoglia is Italian in its own way.  Ron Suhansky’s Renaissance cookbook borrowings – strawberries in the tomato sauce - and wife Colleen’s addictive globe of crusty bread hot from the oven in a sweetly eccentric cottage - kitty-corner from the 92nd Street Y have made for a booked-up hit since I first sounded an alert. After half a dozen thrilling meals, I am surprised now and then by bland, unseasoned pastas or gnocchi sitting in a buttery puddle, but I tend to overlook stumbles for the sublime mussels with bits of salami in a tingling broth, the surprising vegetables – like roasted red peppers with crushed amaretti – monkfish meatballs on spaghetti, and rustic fruit tart at the end for all to share.  1402 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street. 212 831 1402

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Shellfish pasta is cooked in a skillet at Shelly’s Tradizionale. Photo: Steven Richter

        Shelly’s Tradizionale -“I’m a contrarian,” Shelly Fireman said when he decided to turn this steak house into a “Ristorante di Pesci,” and the recipes his team picked up last summer on the Tuscan seashore are splendid. The kitchen still turns out steak house-worthy slabs of beef, but we come to Shelly’s Tradizionale for his risotto di mare, the lobster Catalana with raw vegetables and fruit, and carefully cooked whole fish with roasted potatoes. I don’t remember ever tasting a richer more chocolaty sorbet.141 West 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 245 2422

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        Teodora - I followed the trail of Italian wine salesmen to discover the mostly homey cooking of Giancarlo Quadalti at the underappreciated Teodora. (Homey, that is, if you’re from Romagna.) Giancarlo has gone on to seed Celeste and Bianca - delicious havens for penny pinchers - but this is where he himself oversees fabulous vitello tomato, splendid lasagna all’Emiliana, a fine fritto misto of fish and vegetables in a cute fried potato basket and our favorite strozzapreti Bolognese. Italian mamma-size portions seem made for sharing. 141 West 57th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. 212 826 7101 

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Note: A Voce without Andrew Carmellini is unknown territory.  That’s why it's not on this list. I have faith in Scott Conant, a longtime favorite chef at l’Impero, but Scarpetta is just hatched and too wobbly to include here. When friends ask me for a place where they can actually talk, I send them to Piano Due where Palio used to be. I was surprised and impressed by the food on two visits but I’ve not been recently. That’s the only reason it’s not in this roundup.

 

 

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene



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