Correct me if I’m wrong, but new Italian restaurants are so ubiquitous in the city these days, you can almost track them the way a farmer tracks his crops. Like a bushel of apples, say, new Italian restaurants exhibit uniform qualities (voluminous menus, butter-colored walls, exhibitionist wine racks, wood-burning ovens), and some are more palatable than others. These days, they even seem to sprout up all at once, often in similar locations. Take one of the city’s most fertile restaurant regions, Tribeca, which in the past year has been overrun (or blessed, depending on your point of view) with an abundance of new Italian joints. First to arrive, last fall, was Pace, opened by the canny restaurant team of Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams (the Red Cat, the Mermaid Inn). Now, within weeks of each other, come an ambitious corner restaurant on West Broadway called Della Rovere, and Lo Scalco, which opened a couple of months ago on Church Street, several doors down from another semi-new though now hopelessly dated Tribeca Italian restaurant, Bread Tribeca.
Of these two new establishments, Lo Scalco is the more original. You could argue that it’s almost too original. Thanks to Mario Batali and his many imitators, new Italian restaurants tend to be big, bluff places, dispensing flagons of trendy wines and voluminous portions of food. Lo Scalco is subtle, even wispy, by comparison. Visually, it’s a delicate palate-cleanser of a place; a single small room, with a tiny bar in front and two neat rows of tables covered in crisp white linen stretching along the walls. The room is lit by two baroque chandeliers in a flat, doctor’s-office light. Each table is set with a silver bowl containing delicate, tiny apples, and the assertive house sommelier wears a silver tasting cup around her neck. There are a couple of fastidious paintings on the wall, and if you get tired of these, you can contemplate a glass case filled with the chef’s personal collection of antique cruet sets.
This prim, tiptoe quality shows up in chef Mauro Mafrici’s cooking, too. My friend the veal nut could barely contain his pleasure with the simple vitello appetizer of cool slices of veal served on segments of butter-fried toast, with slices of orange. This came to the table with a variety of other satisfying, deceptively simple salads, like one made with small roast artichokes and bits of quail, and a plate of grilled swordfish layered with green-tomato salsa and fat Sicilian capers. My plate of promising veal-stuffed gnocchi was overwhelmed by too much cinnamon, but the taglioni was covered with a decently rich duck ragù (plus mini-slabs of foie gras), and the risotto, which was fortified with langoustines and shavings of salted, melting bottarga, was superb.
Mafrici, a grizzled veteran of some of the city’s renowned Italian kitchens (Felidia, I Trulli), constructs his menu in a fashionable but barely decipherable way, according to eight different ingredient groups. The worst of the bunch is the sole group (“Italians only eat sole when they have the flu,” one Italian informed our table); the best are the lamb and the artichoke. My favorite lamb dish was the lasagne, a layered wedge of ground lamb, fava bean purée, and melted Parmesan cheese. First prize in the artichoke category went to a plump, deboned quail (stuffed with herbed sausages and bits of quail confit), which I enjoyed, one evening, with a dish of guinea hen, rolled like a cigar, around deposits of stuffing. Many of the larger entrées (indistinct veal, overcooked duck wrapped around bouncy slices of pork) are more perfunctory, although the desserts are as good as you’ll find in most Italian neighborhood joints, especially the fresh-made mascarpone, and the coffee-gelato affogato, splashed with espresso and served in three white demitasse cups.
If the tone at Lo Scalco is soothing, almost surreal (on one evening, only three of the tables were filled; on another the place was empty, except for Ben Stiller himself, laughing uproariously in a distant corner of the room), then Della Rovere, by contrast, is an old-fashioned Italian madhouse. Sinatra songs bray incessantly from the sound system, and the bar is jammed most evenings with bands of gray-suited corporate revelers. The restaurant consists of two rooms and an open kitchen, and within this setup, every imaginable Italian-restaurant cliché is on display. The paint on the butter-colored walls looks like it’s been spread on with a garden trowel. There’s a wood-burning oven, of course, a burbling fountain in the dimly lit backroom, even a rickety-looking wine rack with its own balcony. There’s an attentive maître d’ at the door, a gauntlet of friendly, slightly intrusive waiters wielding pepper mills, and if you peep in the kitchen, you’ll even see that heartwarming, eternally Italian spectacle of portly, pink-cheeked chefs standing over steaming vats of pasta.
Luckily, those portly chefs can cook. There’s plenty of trendy crudi on the menu (try the anchovies, draped over a nice onion-and-raisin relish), and also cichetti (a newly fashionable Venetian version of tapas), which is presented in white bowls filled with milky ricotta, say, or puréed eggplant, or baby cauliflower tossed with anchovies. Among the pastas, there’s a long, carrot-shaped gnocchi studded with pieces of good braised rabbit and a platter of superior tortellini stuffed with mashed osso buco and topped with crispy little nickels of bone marrow. If you’re still upright after this barrage of earthy grub, the braised veal cheeks are good, and so is the Cornish hen, which is tinged with honey. The desserts are much like desserts in other parts of the city’s far-flung Italian cabbage patch, which means they’re mostly forgettable, except for the milk-chocolate panna cotta, a happy blend of chocolate, banana mousse, and crumbled cookies, presented in a frosted sundae glass, with a layer of brûlée on top.