A Recent Italian Boom
In trying times, restaurateurs and diners alike tend to turn to pasta (preferably accompanied by great vats of Bolognese sauce) for comfort, which may explain why people have been rushing at Stephen Hanson’s swanky new Soho restaurant, Fiamma, ever since the doors opened nine months ago. I liked chef Michael White’s little tubes of garganelli covered in prosciutto-and-truffle butter, and the flat leaves of spinach pasta smothered in a rich rabbit Bolognese sauce. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the bygone bull-market days, you can get all these dishes covered with shavings of white truffle (when they’re in season, and for a cool $65). Otherwise, it’s always fun to ride the impressive glass elevator to the second floor and addle yourself at the elegant little bar with sip after sip of the restaurant’s startling cappuccino martini.
The long oaken bar at Beppe is another prime watering hole for rustic diners of a certain stripe, and whenever I drop in, I like to enjoy a couple of chef Cesare Casella’s split-grilled sausages, handmade from pigs raised on the chef’s own farm upstate and served with white beans and a sprig of rosemary. Next stop on the Italian express is Via Emilia, where just a few bucks will buy you a plate of puffy gnocco fritters (to be stuffed with slices of fresh prosciutto), waffle-size squares of real Emilia-Romagnan lasagna oozing bits of beef and thickly creamy béchamel, platters of melty warm lamb cosciotto (covered with white beans and slices of fresh tomato), and the finest wedge of creamy tirami su for the money ($6; cash only, please) in town.
From there, it’s on to Crispo, on a traffic-clogged stretch of 14th Street, for the myriad different cuts of prosciutto and soppressata, before staggering around the corner to the raucous room at Gonzo, where Vincent Scotto, the newest member of the portly-downtown-Italian-chefs club, has recently set up shop. Every one of the chef’s signature grilled pizzas I sampled was superior—there are 50 of them, I dimly recall, of which 12 are on the menu at any one time—as was my salad constructed from neatly stacked half-charred Vidalia-onion rings leavened with croutons and shavings of Parmesan, a deliciously fat quail stuffed with ground chicken and apples and wrapped in smoked bacon, and, finally, the praline cookie sandwich, a spectacular confection of meringue, ice cream, and candied pecans that seemed to rise up over our table like some great caloric mushroom cloud.
If you’re weary of all this rustic grub, then chef Scott Conant’s gauzy new East Side restaurant, L’Impero, offers similarly satisfying treats on a slightly more elevated level. My four-course $48 feast included braised-duck agnolotti speckled with little lozenges of foie gras, creamy polenta covered with delicious mushroom fricassee served from a shining copper pot, and, for the main course, moist roast capretto (that’s baby goat, in case you didn’t know) cooked in the bowels of Tudor City, according to my chatty waiter, for an entire day.