The recent history of cheap Italian
restaurants in New York is a befuddling chronicle of families --
some extended, some dysfunctional -- writ large in red sauce. The
tale goes something like this: A casual, rustic trattoria is born.
It thrives. It either expands or clones itself or, more often, loses
a beloved maître d', or a star cook, who goes off to open
a similarly cheap and delicious place of his own. Our story focuses
on what we'll call the Four Families -- a loosely connected network
of irresistibly cheap Italian restaurants and their offspring.
stuff: Rigatoni melanzane e ricotta salata at La Madrastra.
The most far-flung family is the Pepe posse, engendered by Pepe
Rosso to Go in SoHo. What began as little more than a takeout
alcove with a sidewalk table, scrumptious focaccia sandwiches, and
robust pastas (all hovering around $10) begat Pepe Verde in the
West Village, Pepe Giallo in Chelsea, Capa and Paprika in the East
Village, Caffè Linda
in midtown, and Pepe Viola in Brooklyn. Ownership varies, but the
grub, like a terrifically savory Bolognese, remains the comfortingly
familiar lingua franca.
Then there's Frank in the East Village, a trattoria so tiny
and overrun it soon expanded into an adjacent storefront, which
became a wine bar called Vera. Besides becoming a destination for
crunchy fennel salad, mozzarella flown in from Naples, and rosemary-roasted
chicken, owner Frank Prisinzano's minuscule restaurant also served
as a pit stop for a couple of Italian pals who worked there briefly
before heading deeper into the East Village to open Max,
which recently spawned a Morningside Heights outpost called Max
SoHa (South Harlem). Both excel at rich, zesty ragùs and
the Italian-style meat loaf called polpettone ($10.95-$11.95).
Piadina, best-known for its house bread, a delectably chewy
Emilia-Romagnan stuffed flatbread, was the rustic, candlelit precursor
of Malatesta and Gradisca (all in Greenwich Village). When chef
Salvatore Zapparata left Piadina to open La Madrastra, he
brought his personal takes on northern and southern classics like
a particularly savory, deeply flavored rigatoni melanzane e ricotta
salata ($9) and a green vegetable soup from his hometown in Sicily
but conscientiously left the signature piadina behind.
The six-year-old Il Bagatto
began as a joint Alphabet City venture by Roman chef-owners who've
since parted ways, but their partnership has spawned two new spots,
one opened by each original owner -- Il
Posto Accanto, the wine bar next to Il Bagatto,and Miss
Williamsburg Diner, a rehabbed Italian-flavored eatery in industrial
Williamsburg. A broken home, perhaps, but one that's given us three
distinctive sources for cheap, carefully made fare like perfect
bruschetta, tortellini con ragù, thin strips of rosemary-infused
beef called straccetti (Il Bagatto, $5-$12), a lovely selection
of panini and cocci, hot crock pots full of vegetables and bubbling
cheese (Il Posto Accanto, $7-$9), and hake casserole with zucchini
and potatoes (Miss Williamsburg, $14).