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Trattoria I Pagliacci

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Maternal assistance is also in evidence at Trattoria I Pagliacci (240 Park Avenue South, near 19th Street; 505-3072). The mothers of its manager and its owner live, respectively, in Modena and Sicily, and from time to time they phone in recipes. Word seems to have got out: This cash-only trattoria is packed most nights. (Indeed, avoid window tables if you don't like being crowded by the line of would-be diners.) The Underground Gourmet, a democratic soul, took note of this vote of confidence and dropped in on this four-year-old establishment.

Pagliacci means clowns, and on the restaurant's exposed brick walls hang, somewhat loopily, oil paintings of now-mournful, now-jovial circus buffoons in various rustic settings. In a sense, the sad/happy duality of the clown reflects the food that's on offer. On one night, everything I tasted was delicious: By way of antipasti, panzerotti (croquettes in a creamy sauce with tomato fragments; $6) were excellent, as were the focaccia condita (homemade focaccia bread topped with sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and red pepper and fearlessly doused in olive oil; $5.50) and the rolled mozzarella (with pesto, prosciutto, red pepper, and basil; $6). Main courses also hit the spot: Mushroom-and-prosciutto pizza ($8.50) was a generous, subtle feast; roasted lamb ($12.50) was slathered fragrantly with rosemary and oregano; and chicken pappardelle (with wild mushrooms in a red-wine sauce; $9) was delightful. Then, on another night, nothing went right: Marinated grilled squid ($6.50) was fishy and indeed unfinishable; sautéed baby artichokes ($5.50) were gummy; the tomato sauce in the penne al pomodoro ($7) was acidic; and the chicken marinated in beer ($13) was lackluster.

But though some of the dishes misfire, this friendly, down-to-earth place -- an oasis of affordability on Park Avenue South -- is, on balance, good value. The hordes of customers here (locals, mainly) know a good thing when they eat it and most certainly are not clowns.

Trattoria I Pagliacci is open Sunday through Thursday from noon to 11:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from noon to midnight. Cash only.


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