Remember Pino Luongo's mama fixation? Back before the Tuscan restaurateur went completely Coco, back when he was as hot a topic in the restaurant world as Ducasse's fountain pens are today, he came up with a neat gimmick: At his much-anticipated Le Madri, he would hire not only a traditional chef but also a squadron of real Italian mamas from the unspoiled countryside to cook exactly what they fed their families back home. While the restaurant succeeded, the mail-order-mamas program didn't, not least because some of the mamas, upon further investigation, turned out to be either unmarried, childless, professional caterers, from Brooklyn, or all of the above.
Well, a good idea is a good idea even when it's just a publicity stunt. And Pierluigi Palazzo, a Luongo in the making who left his comfortable managerial post at Terramare off Madison Avenue for the grittier, more affordable East Village, has instituted a chef-exchange program of his own. At Gnocco Caffé (337 East 10th Street; 212-677-1913), which he and his wife, Rossella Tedesco, opened a month ago opposite Tompkins Square Park, Palazzo is recruiting the next best thing to real Italian mamas: their sons, talented cooks with real skills and a burning desire to see the world, or at least CBGB. This is the plan: Palazzo's partners in Modena (the vaunted birthplace of balsamic vinegar, an ingredient that finds its way into almost everything here) scout the local cooking schools for talented young chefs, train them in their Modena restaurant, and send them to New York. After six months to a year, a replacement arrives and the veteran (currently 29-year-old Vanni Olivari) is sent packing--with any luck, before burnout sets in. "I believe that even the best Italian chefs," says Palazzo, "after a certain period here, they're going to spoil their skills because of the American style of life." Hey, whatever works. If this unorthodox employment practice is responsible for Gnocco's simple and delicious pastas, first-rate salads, and satisfying entrées that, with the exception of a $16 filet mignon, cost $12.50 and under, we heartily endorse it.
Don't be fooled by Gnocco's deserted front room, with its empty tables for two and its counter laden with the night's dessert specials. All the action's in the back garden, under a cluster of canvas umbrellas and a trellis overgrown with ivy and trumpet-vine flowers. Everyone, from the sweetly accommodating young waiters to the majority of the customers, seems to speak Italian--or at least fake it well, with a pack of Marlboros or a demitasse of good strong espresso for a prop.
But even Americans and other interlopers will be greeted warmly, sometimes with a welcoming glass of Prosecco. There's also a brief list of Italian wines, nearly all of which are available by the glass. And the first time we were there, we were awarded a complimentary plate of the house dish--not gnocchi, those familiar soft ricotta or potato dumplings typically doused in cheese or tomato sauce (though you can get them here too), but gnocco ($8.50), crispy, puffy deep-fried dough pillows, similar in size and shape to ravioli shells, served with paper-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma and coppa. "It's what grandmothers give the children to keep them quiet," says Palazzo, whose version achieves a similar mouth-filling effect.
Silky prosciutto is also a perfect, if familiar, match for juicily ripe melon ($8), and it plays a starring role (along with nutty Pecorino, fresh mozzarella, and artichoke hearts) in superb sandwiches made with Sullivan Street Bakery crusty pane Pugliese or dimpled pizza bianca ($7 to $8.50). Aged balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with prosciutto, three of Emilia-Romagna's most famous exports, are in heavy rotation throughout the menu, which combines Northern and Southern Italian dishes with nonpartisan élan.
You might expect something described as a "warm free-range young turkey breast" ($7.50) to look like a chunk of roasted meat, not the thin slices that appear, which resemble something you'd stick between two slices of rye. But a sweet-sour balsamic emulsion rescues it from banality, as does the accompanying salad of fresh greens, ripe cherry tomatoes, and good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Grilled vegetables ($7) escape an all-too-typical bland and rubberized fate thanks to careful cooking and warm Scamorza cheese. But the best entrée might be the most unusual: thin slices of pork tenderloin ($9.50) bathed in that transformative balsamic emulsion and buried under a huge mound of shaved Parmigiano. (Too much cheese! you might think at first. Wrong.) The stracetti ($11) is shredded beef tenderloin sliced ultrathin, its flavor amped up with fresh rosemary and garlic. The best thing about the free-range-chicken breast--sliced again, but thicker this time, and seasoned with thyme and saffron, though not enough--is the unusual purée of potato and zucchini in which it's served. And the price ($9).
Blame it on the power of suggestion, but our favorites of the six pastas ($7.50 to $12.50) were the two sublime gnocchetti--miniature potato gnocchi with fragrant cherry tomatoes and torn basil, and a tender ricotta version in a buttery Parmesan-sage sauce. Portions tend to the small side (to serve as first courses), a minor quibble considering the prices, but the pork tenderloin seemed to shrink perceptibly between visits--an aberration, we hope, rather than a trend.
On the plus side, you'll have room for desserts ($4.50 to $7.50), which seem to change daily but always include those first-rate sorbetti the Italians so ingeniously pack into a corresponding fruit skin (lemon in a lemon, for example). Apple and pear tarts are suitably rustic and not too sweet, and chocolate purists should know that the flourless cake comes with a rich blanket of mascarpone cream, an over-the-top (but delectable) embellishment that has its fans. But don't get too attached. There's no telling when the pastry chef's tour of duty will be over: He's the other charter member of Gnocco's culinary exchange program.