Malatesta (649 Washington street; 741-1207) has everything that the Underground Gourmet could ask for in a summery West Village trattoria: delicious and inexpensive food, a (sliver of a) river view, and (unlike nearby Bar Pitti) easy accessibility even if your name isn’t on the Vogue masthead.
Malatesta is the unsung year-old offspring of model-infested Piadina (57 West 10th Street), with which it shares a vaguely rust-colored and rustic décor and a menu inspired by Emilia-Romagna; yet as opposed to its convivial but dungeonlike elder, Malatesta is luminous and airy and just right for this time of year. Its floor-to-ceiling windows are thrown open to allow tables to spill onto Christopher Street; a pleasant zephyr wafts in from the Hudson to ruffle the paper tablecloths and cool the brow; the service, too, epitomizes efficient breeziness.
The other great thing about Malatesta, for those worried about a summer tummy, is that portions are so large and gratifying that one course will do. The mixed-grilled-vegetable appetizer ($7), for example, fills a platter with zucchini, radicchio, eggplant, leek, and tomato, and comes with a piping-hot piadina, which is a soft, Frisbee-size thin flatbread that functions as a wrap or an edible scoop and is the everyday nourishment of Romagna farmers. Other starters are equally generous: The mussels ($6.50) would sate a large party of mollusk-crazed Belgians, and the mushroom salad ($5.50) is a five-strong (yes, five) flotilla of portobellos on a deep, vinegar-darkened sea of arugula. Also sizable is the artichoke salad ($7), in which the vegetable appears in authentic Italian fashion: raw, and sliced into thin, crunchy strips that are drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil and topped by shards of peppery grana. There are also numerous piadina sandwiches on offer at around $6, the cheekiest of which is the cheese with arugula: The cheese has the creamy consistency of mascarpone but is in fact a cunning and entirely effective combination of sour cream and – wait for it – cottage cheese.
The immense servings continue with the main courses, which are a special treat for anyone fond of enormous but exquisitely cooked animal parts. A huge hunk of tuna with fresh herbs ($18 and seared precisely as requested) emerges from the kitchen like Australia; grilled sirloin steak on arugula ($18) comes in a pile of delicious slices stained by balsamic vinegar and pebbled with shavings of grana padano, the butter-soft flesh cut only slightly more thickly than one might see in Milan; and grilled lamb chops ($16) are a quartet of soft cutlets made in exact compliance with their eater’s specifications – i.e., medium-rare but crispy. This bespoke grilling is never to be taken for granted.
Less meaty (and less pricey) are gnocchi ($11) – fine, but no inordinate shakes – and spaghetti alla chiatarra ($9.50). The latter comes with wonderfully fruity and aromatic fresh-chopped tomatoes (which also figure in a delicious polenta appetizer, $6), but to my peasant’s palate the lumps of heat-softened mozzarella are, as Roman lawyers used to say, wood that can be chopped without injury. The only dish that I thought didn’t work was the fettuccine with shrimp, artichoke, and diced tomato ($14): Nothing wrong with the pasta, but shrimp are naturally fantastic-tasting little blighters and there is no earthly reason why one should find them, as I did on this occasion, tough and on the fishy side.
Finally, a caution: An enormous bottle of balsamic vinegar is made available to diners at Malatesta to splash onto their food to their heart’s content. Please think twice before succumbing to the temptation. Although aceto balsamico is undoubtedly a good thing, it would be a shame if this specialty, which should be used sparingly, were to wind up on that blasted heath known as freshly-ground-pepper territory.
Malatesta Trattoria’s extended summer hours are from 11:30 a.m. to midnight every day. Cash only.