Hefty chowhound establishments like BEPPE, VIA EMILIA, PEASANT, and GONZO have been all the rage in downtown Italian circles over the past few years. Now Tom Valenti brings elegant, formidably rustic grub to the Upper West Side with the opening of his elegant, formidably rustic new Italian restaurant, ’CESCA. It’s easy to make a pig of yourself in the bar area alone (try the calzone served in dainty slices, or the toasted pork panini), but when you wander back to the main dining room, with its fortified oak tables and rich, butter-colored walls, you might want to bring along a protective bib. You’ll find bowls of crispy Parmesan fritters and poached eggs wobbling atop a thin bed of speck. As at Valenti’s other restaurant, OUEST, you’ll also find dandified offal dishes like liver wrapped in pancetta and tripe served in a pot with garlic toast points, and whatever you do, save room for the superior bucatini (piled with more pancetta) and the mascarpone cheesecake, which is doused in lightly whipped cream and spackled with fennel seeds and bits of orange brittle.
I don’t know if Sara Jenkins has perfected a tripe recipe yet, but I enjoyed a nice rendition of wild-boar ragù at her newest home, 50 CARMINE. For a more high-minded Italian feed, this year’s choice is SAN DOMENICO, or L’IMPERO for a pot of Scott Conant’s fricasséed mushrooms followed by a helping of the lightly creamy risotto, piled with little pieces of grilled quail. ESCA remains the Mount Olympus of Italian seafood joints, although for simple fritto misto, the salty, lemony, slightly tempura’d recipe on the menu at BREAD TRIBECA is one of the best Americanized versions of this dish I’ve ever had. And if you feel the need for a little culinary buzz in the middle of the day, make a beeline for ACQUA PAZZA, in midtown, and ask for a bowl of the superior tagliolini al caffè, made with rock shrimp and slices of porcini mushroom, all mixed in a tangle of freshly made tagliatelle tinged with ground coffee.