The great rustic-Italian-food binge, which began with the superb Batali-Bastianich restaurants Babbo and Lupa and reached a thundering crescendo last year with the opening of Tom Valenti’s ’Cesca, on the Upper West Side, seems to have abated. But if you’re still salivating for multiple varieties of risotto or six kinds of pasta, Pace, in Tribeca, is the new place to go. For more dainty eaters, there’s also Abboccato, recently opened on the old 55th Street restaurant row, where numerous fat-man Italian staples (tripe, suckling pig, veal cheeks) are reproduced in a most civilized uptown way. My order of trippa grigliata turned out to be little ribbons of grilled calf’s stomach served with croutons of polenta and a mild mint salsa, and the veal cheeks I sampled were scented with perhaps too much vanilla. But the suckling pig had a soft, candied quality (it’s simmered in milk and hazelnuts), and the actual desserts (pomegranate panna cotta, buffalo milk-ricotta torta with honeycomb, Friulian dumplings filled with crushed nuts) seemed to have descended from some great Italian pastry chef in the sky.
They don’t serves frites yet at Barbuto, or profiteroles smothered in chocolate sauce, but with its clean, streamlined café chairs and scruffy fashionista clientele, Jonathan Waxman’s latest restaurant threatens to become something new to the world of dining: an Italian brasserie. It hasn’t taken much time for the talented, itinerant chef to master the art of the brick oven, so try his crackly-skinned chicken (covered with spoonfuls of lemony salsa verde), or, if you crave pasta, order the spaghetti carbonara flecked with bits of guinciale. Hot pressed panini in all its forms is still what my wife and I order whenever we find ourselves wandering by ’Inoteca, on the Lower East Side. And whenever we feel the desperate need for an infusion of hipness, we rush to Bivio, on Hudson Street, to squint through the nightclub gloom at the wall-size chalkboard scrawled with elegant house specials like duck-confit salad and the formidable beef-ragù lasagne, which is served piping-hot and spread, like a chocolate-cream cake, with layers of oozing béchamel sauce.
I haven’t detected béchamel sauce yet on any of Mario Batali’s ingenious pizza creations at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, but the last time I checked, the mercurial Vincent Scotto was putting pumpkin on his grilled pizza a couple of blocks away at Gonzo. A mind-boggling 40 toppings are available at the new thin-crust-pizza outpost on lower Second Avenue called Posto, so it was a relief when my gregarious waiter insisted I put down my menu and order the “Shroomtown,” an excellent concoction of shiitake, portobello, and button mushrooms all spritzed with white-truffle oil. You’ll find no spritzing of pies at Una Pizza Napoletana, or slicing of pies, or even, God forbid, pies baked to go. The owner, Anthony Mangieri, is a pizza scholar of the most severe Neapolitan school, and to give his pizza dough the proper attention, his East Village parlor is open only four days a week. He bakes only four kinds of pies in his perfectly calibrated wood-fired brick oven, the best of which is the superbly chaste pizza bianca, blooming with pools of melted buffalo mozzarella flown in specially from old Napoli.