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Mama's Boy

Beppe is chock-full of recipes from Cesare Casella's Italian family kitchen. He calls it "Free Range Tuscan Country Cooking." We call it good.

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As a child of the seventies, raised on a lively blend of casseroles, frozen fish sticks, and exotic restaurant foods, I've always regarded the term "Mom's home cooking" with suspicion. My mother is a fine cook, mind you, but she comes from a long line of mothers who weren't. Our culinary forebears hired starchy German ladies to feed their children, and tended to regard a pot of boiled lima beans as a gourmet event. This DNA strand is light years removed from the one inherited by chef Cesare Casella, whose new restaurant, Beppe, is a monument to the mythical land of big, bosomy mamas with loaves of bread in the oven and vats of steamy ragout on the stove. Casella's parents ran a successful restaurant in the Tuscan city of Lucca, and he grew up picking sprigs of rosemary in the backyard, surrounded by all sorts of delicious things to eat. He still stuffs fresh herbs in his pocket as a kind of talisman, and if you ask him, as I did, about a certain recipe for farro soup, he'll smack his fingers to his lips and say, "The best recipe is always from Mama!"

The original Casella-family restaurant is no longer in business, but Beppe (Casella's childhood nickname for his grandfather) has given it New World life. Beppe's façade is painted in a soft, orange pastel, with two potted pine trees by the entrance and a fringe of terra-cotta tiling along the roof. Shiny bottles of Luccanese olive oil are for sale in the foyer, along with jars of olives and homegrown stewed tomatoes. The room inside is decorated in a studiously rustic motif, with dark wood beams running along the ceiling, exposed brick walls, and a wood-burning fireplace. Photographs of acquaintances from the old country are hung around the room, and dishes of Casella's self-described "Free Range Tuscan Country Cooking" are perambulated to and from the small upstairs kitchen in Mama-style cookware by Le Creuset.

Tuscans are supposed to be fond of big, sturdy meals, but Casella has infused his menu with a peculiarly American brand of heft. There are Tuscan cowboy-style spare ribs on the menu, baskets of lemon fried chicken served fritto misto-style, and a warm eggy salad that one delicate eater at our table called "salad as comfort food." I tried to orient myself with the house selection of antipasti, which consisted of numerous cured salamis, crostinis slathered in tomato sauce and liver, and three tiny Le Creuset pots filled with soft baby octopus, a cheesy cauliflower delicacy, and dense layers of eggplant shot through with tomato sauce and olive oil. Among à la carte antipasti, I sampled some calamari marinated in thyme, flash-broiled, and rolled in bread crumbs, followed by a procession of beefy country dishes like black cabbage on grilled bread (quite tasty, with two quail eggs on top), chicken livers sautéed in red onions (not so tasty), and Casella's own "handmade" pork sausage, grilled and served on a bed of Tuscan beans (delicious).

Unlike my aged grandmothers, Casella is a wizard with beans, which he grows with tender care on an organic plot upstate. His nutritious "republic of beans" salad contains seven kinds of beans, mixed with parsley and onion in a rich vinaigrette. My favorite appetizer was Mama's beanlike farro soup, made from farro grain and a sweet leavening of squash. Among pastas, the Italian snobs at our table vouched for the pepolino (small squares of pasta in a simple tomato-and-thyme sauce), and I liked the spicy norcino, with a crumbling of sausage on top. But a few of the other pasta dishes fell surprisingly flat. The griddle-cooked testaroli was smothered in a bland mushroom sauce, and the delicious-sounding pinci (thick noodles, in an even thicker walnut-tomato sauce) had a spooky resemblance to my childhood servings of Chef Boyardee.

Not that this fazed the diners at Beppe, who packed the joint on the nights I was there. Along with the Tuscan spare ribs and fritto chicken, the secondi menu was filled with crowd-pleasing fusion items like lamb potpie and a seafood stew served tagine-style, under a stovepipe cover. The pork ribs were moist and tasted sweetly of tomatoes, and the chicken (which came with pancetta-flavored collard greens) was cut in manageably small pieces and sealed in a brittle, lemony batter. I thought the seafood stew was a little unfocused, but the potpie (simmered in Chianti, with baby artichokes) was delicious once you made your way through the cementlike crust. Tuscan purists should enjoy Casella's version of New York strip steak, which is sliced in thin ribbons, then drizzled with an aromatic herb sauce. The best seafood dish was the fish of the day, roasted, with lemon and oregano; the best poultry item were two quail, grilled to juicy pinkness inside, rolled in Casella's impressive herb stash, and served on a mushroom farro cake.

There's a good selection of Tuscan wines to accompany all this aggressively rustic grub, plus eleven varieties of grappa to help burn it off. The mostly standard dessert choices aren't written on any menu, so you have to listen groggily as the wait staff recite them all. There was a good, though very unrustic plum tart, and three slim cannolis accompanied by some chocolate dipping sauce in a clay bowl. The Italian snobs at the table turned up their noses at an arrangement of stale biscotti ice-cream sandwiches but were pleased with the yogurt panna cotta, which was smooth and sweet, like custard but not as heavy. There was a selection of cooling sorbets as well, and a Mama-size icy concoction of Chianti jelly, Prosecco sorbet, and lemon semifreddo, all stacked up in a frosty glass. Cups of cappuccino concluded the meal, followed by a plate of anise and bacon brittle. I thought the bacon was a little over-the-top, but that's just an opinion. My mama was a different kind of cook, after all.

Beppe , 45 East 22nd Street; 212-982-8422. Dinner, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Appetizers, $7 to $12; entrées, $16 to $29. A.E., M.C., V.


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