‘This is big bear food,” said my wife with a quiet, barely perceptible sigh. She’d put down her menu and was observing the unrelenting procession of meat and pasta and deliciously lethal fritter dishes being set before us at Tom Valenti’s very fine, though unrelentingly rustic new Upper West Side restaurant, ’Cesca. I’d heard that tone in her voice before. It’s the tone she adopts when our 3-year-old daughter is contemplating a whole box of Froot Loops at breakfast time, say, or an entire plate of cookies for dessert. She’ll use it sometimes at restaurants when we dine together, but not often. It’s reserved for those special occasions when the demands of my job as a critic dovetail neatly with my own messy, rustic, overly enthusiastic tastes as an everyday eater. It’s a tone of caution, mingled with resignation and a hint of despair. “Try not to behave like a ravenous pig tonight, dear,” she was saying in her diplomatic yet definitive way, as the lamb shanks and pots of stewed tripe thumped down on our table. “You’ll regret it when you do.”
She was right, of course, although once you acquire a taste for Valenti’s gourmet hungry-man style of cooking, the habit is hard to shake. Like Ouest, which earned Valenti and his restaurateur partner, Godfrey Polistina, the eternal gratitude of serious eaters all over the Upper West Side, ’Cesca (the restaurant is named for Polistina’s daughter) is designed to convey equal parts elegance, neighborly bonhomie, and bulk. There is a brown canvas awning outside the West 75th Street entrance, and a polished glass window through which you can see revelers hoisting their drinks and the hearthlike flickering of television screens above the crowded bar. The lounge area has its own menu of pressed panini (try the one filled with Cubano-style pork) and a delicious variety of baked stromboli that you can eat standing at tall tables made of thick, fortified oak. The tables in the main dining room are made of oak, too, and the walls are painted a lustrous burnt yellow and patterned with images of Renaissance Italy, like an old Florentine hotel.
Variety, on a grandiose, even compulsive scale, seems to be the fashion in new Italian restaurants these days, and ’Cesca is no different. There are twenty dishes on the antipasti “per la tavola” (for the table) section alone. The one you should probably order first is the Parmesan fritters, which are served in a simple bowl and cupped in wax paper. They have the smoothness of a beignet, the heft of a hush puppy, and they’re spiced with cayenne pepper and little shreds of Italian ham. Ham, in its many forms, is a favorite Valenti ingredient, as are eggs, which appear softly poached atop a single baked, crumb-stuffed sardine and are hidden in a little stirrup cup of hardened, chewy Parmesan, served over a fine, thinly cut triangle of speck. These inventive antipasti were followed to our table by a good fritto misto (cut in big, tempuralike pieces), a densely satisfying farro salad (filled with pine nuts and a crumbling of goat cheese), plus four roasted oysters infused with a savory tomato zabaglione and decorated with little squares of salty, crinkly prosciutto.
If all of this sounds delicious, that’s because it more or less is, although Valenti’s dogged pursuit of big, extravagant flavors sometimes lands him in trouble. A dish of mushrooms and butter-soaked polenta (with sheep’s-milk cheese folded in) was so cloyingly rich that, to my wife’s astonishment, I pushed it aside. Ditto the pasta al forno, a colossal, creamy mass of noodles and beef ragù, cooked, like shepherd’s pie, in an earthenware crock. The potato gnocchi (also served in a crock, with braised duck, slivers of crisped garlic, and ricotta cheese) was a more successful dish, and so was the formidable, peppery bucatini all’amatriciana, piled with crumblings of boiled egg and pancetta. If you can’t handle all this heft, there’s a superior version of vitello tonnato (cut in razor-thin slices and garnished with capers and subtle tuna sauce), a nice linguini laced with tuna, black olives, and tomato, and golden little raviolini plated with a collection of sweet grape tomatoes and filled with soft, yolklike deposits of shrimp mousse.
After these pastas, the more demure diners at our table signaled (demurely) that they were ready to quit. But the fun at any Valenti restaurant begins with the meat, and the meat dishes at ’Cesca are superb. You can get tuna, of course (it’s cut in large hunks, grilled, and dripped with tonnato sauce), and decent cuts of pork and grilled rib-eye. But the real inventiveness is reserved for old-fashioned trencherman foods, like lamb (served with a delicious, herb-stuffed lamb sausage), liver (wrapped in strips of pancetta), and tripe. I began my explorations with the squab, which was perfectly roasted, glazed with honey, and served on a bed of riso (a kind of rustic risotto) flavored with sage. After that came the famous Valenti pork shank, an imposing haunch of meat, braised in whole flagons of wine, supported by garden vegetables and a mound of polenta. The tripe, I confess, I ordered once in order to acclimate myself to its delightfully odd nuances and textures (Valenti stews his in red wine, carrots, and more pancetta), and again to enjoy it with a smooth bowl of polenta.
Stewed tripe may not be the hottest entrée in town, but on the nights I dropped in, ’Cesca was hopping. Robert De Niro wandered by my table one evening, and then I sat in a banquette beside Jann Wenner and Yoko Ono, who was wearing an oyster-colored silk cap. I doubt Ms. Ono ordered the tripe. More likely, she found comfort in the selection of desserts, which are refined, even dainty, compared with the rest of the menu. After all the hectic feasting, it was a pleasure to lean back in my chair and sample a cooling glass of gelato made with goat’s milk and honey and sprinkled with crunchy pomegranate seeds. There is a nice pistachio gelato also, served on top of a kind of chocolate waffle sandwich, and a cannoli bombed with semi-ripe figs. Best of all, though, is the small wheel of cheesecake, made with mascarpone and ricotta and covered with two sauces, one made with orange juice reduced to a bitter syrup, the other with lightly whipped cream and mascarpone. It’s topped with a spackling of orange brittle and spiked with fennel seeds, so that the smooth tanginess of the cake melts into a kind of crunchy sweetness on the back of your tongue. At least, that was my first impression. Before I could get a second bite, the ladies at the table gobbled it whole.