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Fanning the Flame

Stephen Hanson -- the P. T. Barnum of the restaurant world -- has turned his attention to Italian food. Needless to say, his new osteria, Fiamma, is anything but red-sauce basic.

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Fiamma Affair: The upstairs dining room.  

Like any successful impresario, Stephen Hanson has a knack for creating an audience. His restaurants (like Blue Fin, Park Avalon, Ruby Foo's) are elaborately themed, like Broadway shows, and most of them open big and run forever. The latest is called Fiamma, which means "flame" in Italian. Fiamma is supposed to be an osteria -- the Italian equivalent of a casual bistro. Only at this particular osteria, there are 40 Barolo wines on the wine list, 34 of which cost over $100. There is a giant "cheese cooler" for the storage of fancy Parmesans and a lavish "wine station" for the ceremonial decanting of fancy wines. The snug townhouse space even has a glass elevator, though the marble staircase will do. "Take the elevator," the hostesses insisted when I asked for the stairs, "you'll enjoy the ride."

They were right, sort of. Fiamma is one of those restaurants where gastronomic quality is less important than artifice, ambience, and the general illusion of having a good time. Of course, creating this illusion requires as much skill, in its way, as baking a fine soufflé. At Fiamma, the ingredients include a roster of mind-addling specialty drinks (try the cappuccino martini, complete with floating coffee beans), and a large, solicitous waitstaff wearing ninjalike outfits designed by Nicole Miller. There are two dining rooms: a smaller ground-level space and a larger, more elaborate one upstairs. The interior designer, Jeffery Beers, has decked this room with orange linen lampshades, lots of Italian-themed sketches and paintings, and warm wood paneling. The cumulative effect feels chic and vaguely clubby, like dining in some Vegas approximation of a grand old Italian establishment like Pietro's or Rao's.

The menu, as composed by executive chef Michael White, isn't up to these standards, but it isn't horrible either. The bland blue-fin-tuna carpaccio seemed to have been previously frozen, and my salad of thinly sliced Muscovy duck tasted properly gamy but dry as shoe leather. To my shock, the Italian snob at my table enjoyed her sautéed-sea-scallop antipasti, which was served with shavings of Parmesan on baby artichokes and black-trumpet mushrooms. Two other seafood appetizers -- charred octopus with ceci beans, and baked red mullet with salsa verde over warm potatoes -- were tasty, as were the raviolini stuffed with braised veal shank and Fossa cheese. Among pastas, the seafood tagliolini was stringy, although I liked the savory stracci (flat spinach pasta, covered in a rabbit bolognese), and the deliciously rich, hand-rolled garganelli, dunked in a creamy sauce of prosciutto, peas, and truffle butter.

Most of the entrées were flat by comparison, and those that weren't tended to be smothered in heavy, palate-deadening sauces. The veal chop, loin of lamb, and sliced-beef tagliata were decent as cuts of meat go (particularly the lamb, which is wrapped in basil leaves), but all seemed to be drowned in the same brownish, oversweet reduction. The chicken was similarly afflicted -- and dried out, to boot -- although I liked the roasted squab, which was cut in crispy sections and piled on a heap of sautéed porcini mushrooms and broccoli rabe. In the seafood category, my favorite was the seared tuna, which came with a tangy caponata made with eggplant, pine nuts, and white raisins. The Italian snob had nothing very good to say about her overcooked and very un-Italian halibut, however, and the nice piece of bronzino I sampled seemed lost in an aggressively bubbly, lemony broth containing fennel, fava beans, and too many Brussels sprouts.

Despite these small culinary transgressions, patrons are crowding into Fiamma like pigs through a gate. They vamped over cocktails at the dimly lit bars, swilled the Barolos with impunity (if you're looking for a substitute, my $34 bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo tasted fine), and rode up and down in the glass elevator with happy grins on their faces. For dessert, they picked at little beignets spiked with amaretto (okay), wheels of vanilla-yogurt semifreddo (good), and honey-tinged mascarpone tarts capped with twirls of candied orange peel (very good). There's also an elaborate chocolate-and-hazelnut torte, the best part of which is a scoop of freshly made hazelnut gelato. Or you can order your gelatos separately, each with a twirling chocolate antenna coming from its top. That's what I did on my last visit to Fiamma, while sipping one of the restaurant's lethal grappas. The experience was dimly pleasant, I recall, even if the antennae tasted a little like candle wax.

Fiamma 206 Spring Street; (212-653-0100). Lunch, Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m., Sunday till 10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $9 to $14; entrées, $15 to $29. All major credit cards.


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