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The Italian Top Ten

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Nothing seems to cover all the culinary bases quite like a good fix of Italian food. At least that’s my explanation for the more or less continuous profusion of top-quality Italian establishments all around town. A quick check of local menus reveals fine cooking from Rome, Florence, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Naples, and all sorts of points in between. You’ll find rustic retro classics like tripe alla parmigiana (Babbo) and goat cooked for hours on end (L’Impero). You’ll find fusion creations like lemon fried chicken (Beppe), spare ribs (Wednesdays at Tuscan), and the now-ubiquitous sashimi-style crudi of raw salmon or fluke (Esca). Which may be why Gael Greene, Hal Rubenstein, and I, in choosing our favorite Italian joints, are happily, even contentedly, all over the map (though we also agreed on more than half of the ten selections). What follows, in no particular order of preference, is our attempt to cull, to codify, and, of course, to celebrate a few of the top purveyors of the city’s most durable and varied cuisine.


The dining room at L'Impero.  

L’Impero
Capretto—slow-roasted goat—is an ancient Florentine specialty, and now, thanks to the talents of Scott Conant, you can get it daily in Tudor City. Conant’s version even tastes good, served with crispy potatoes, English peas, and caramelized shallots, plus a helping of the smooth house polenta, spooned from a copper pot. You’ll also find lobster scented with summer truffles, sweetbreads set over little bows of farfalle, and agnolotti stuffed with braised duck and foie gras. Conant’s food is the opposite of rustic. It’s classic, in a refined, almost French style, and it’s served, in the proper Tudor City manner, with pomp and flourish.
45 Tudor City Place (212-599-5045)

Peasant
Rustic and brick oven are two overused terms in Italian-food circles, but if you want to trace them to their absolute, etymological core, this is a good place to start. Since opening over three years ago on the fringes of Little Italy, Frank De Carlo’s spare, bunker-style restaurant has been a late-night haunt for food scholars seeking the essence of roasted eggplant, say, or perfectly oval pizza bianca, or crackly, wood-cooked sardines. The food is served at crowded oak tables, in piping hot terra-cotta pots, and the feeling you always get, late in the evening, when the ovens are roaring, is of taking part in a communal, mildly bacchanalian, gourmet event.
194 Elizabeth Street (212-965-9511)

Babbo
Chef Mario Batali’s great achievement—one among many—has been to turn animal viscera into the epitome of high cuisine. On a recent visit, it was a pleasure (from our usual perch at the bar) to watch a thin, bejeweled woman pick heartily (if that’s possible) at a little pyramid of warm lamb’s tongue. Calves’ brains were on the menu, and pig’s-foot Milanese, and the usual mash of goose liver or beef cheeks stuffed in the freshest ravioli. We should also mention the wines, which were delicious, the impeccably inventive pastas, and the room, which night after night achieves that elusive combination of intimacy and style better than any other restaurant in town.
110 Waverly Place (212-777-0303)

Fiamma
With its patented “cheese box,” glass elevator, and rows of tangerine lampshades, Stephen Hanson’s grandiose flagship establishment feels like a twenty-first-century version of the old Italian speakeasy, run gloriously amok. Only at this speakeasy, you can procure chef Michael White’s puffy gnocchi made with Yukon-gold potatoes, prosciutto-laced garganelli bombed with truffle butter, and truncheon-size veal chops scented with sage. And then there are the drinks: great, gleaming bottles of Barolo reverently decanted at the wine station and the wondrous cappuccino martini, served straight up, in the classic speakeasy style, replete with floating coffee beans. 206 Spring St. (212-653-0100)


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