Centovini has been open for almost four months now, an unobtrusive little place in an unobtrusive, even problematic location. The restaurant sits on the bottom floor of a bland redbrick building on Houston Street, near Greene, on the northern fringe of Soho. To find it, you have to pick your way past crowds of distracted shoppers and several pieces of earth- moving equipment parked along the street. But as soon you get inside, it’s clear that unobtrusiveness is one of this restaurant’s particular charms. As the name indicates, Centovini (“100 wines”) isn’t even a restaurant, technically. It’s a small-size wine bar, with a long white-marble bar for drinking these wines and a glass-enclosed store next door for buying them. The walls are colored in hues of gray and black, and the stools lining the bar are made of white leather. A series of colorful handblown Italian chandeliers hang here and there like oversize sculptural artifacts, and they help to accentuate the feeling that develops, after a glass of Barolo or two, of a kind of intimate, even stylish coziness.
It used to be that dinner at the bar consisted of a plate of oysters, possibly, a cheeseburger with pickles, or a boiled egg. But with the arrival of restaurants like Masa and, more recently, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, this long-neglected genre has been undergoing a renaissance all around town. At Centovini (the venture is a collaboration between the owners of the high-end Soho design store Moss and Nicola Marzovilla, owner of the Gramercy Italian restaurant I Trulli), you can enjoy bowls of cialledda (tomato salad with chunks of rustic Tuscan bread) with your glass of ’04 Ronco dei Tassi (a medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc, from Friuli), and slices of pecorino and piave cheese bolstered with ribbons of fresh prosciutto and speck. When I asked our garrulous bartender what he liked best among the antipasti, he said the salads. Soon, my fellow barflies and I were picking at healthful portions of arugula tossed with hazelnuts, apples, and pecorino, and tangles of dandelion greens and fresh cherry tomatoes crowned with creamy burratina cheese.
The chef at Centovini is Patti Jackson, an Alto veteran and devout Greenmarketeer. The menu she and Marzovilla have put together is straightforward Italian, with a few seasonal flourishes, but the restaurant’s modest size, and the focus on wine, give everything an extra, unexpected punch. My wife, that champion of dainty dining establishments, ordered a glass of Umbrian white (’04 Tenuta Le Velette) with her bowl of pappardelle with wild mushrooms one night. She took a sip of wine, then a bite of noodles, put down her fork, and pronounced herself satisfied. “Everything’s yummy,” she said. I had a similar reaction to the nicely sizzled Italian sausages, served as an appetizer over sautéed onions and peppers, and the butternut-squash soup, which was dotted with cranberry beans and crumblings of pancetta. The pastas (handmade by Marzovilla’s beloved mama) are all good, particularly the pappardelle and the maccheroncini, doused with the rich house Bolognese sauce.
When tasting the main courses, you may want to order a second, slightly fuller Friulian white (like an ’03 Ribolla Gialla) to go with your delicately prepared orata (with romanesco and slivers of almond), or even the country-style chicken, which is sautéed to a golden, salty crisp on the outside. I didn’t know what to drink with my helping of knobbly, overrusticated country rabbit, but if you order the hanger steak, try one of the Brunellos (’00 Altesino was the name of mine), and if you get the excellent veal cheeks (slathered with a red-wine glaze, and served with a little pyramid of midget Greenmarket carrots), spring for a glass of ’02 Faro from Sicily, which is served ceremoniously in an elephantine Bordeaux glass. After all this boozing, the list of dessert wines at Centovini is mercifully slim, but there are little plates of Italian cookies to pick at as you contemplate your coming hangover, and even a couple of decent desserts, like steamy chocolate pudding (set over a spoonful of crème fraîche) or a tall martini glass of granita, spiked, appropriately, with a generous dose of espresso.
Patti Jackson isn’t the only female chef with a notable Italian restaurant downtown. After numerous stops at kitchens around the city, Sara Jenkins, the peripatetic, respected Tuscan specialist, has now revamped Bread Tribeca. Jenkins, who has cooked at Il Buco, among many other places, has a knack for the kind of hearty Italian cooking made popular by Mario Batali and his many acolytes and imitators. With her arrival, the menu at this modish neighborhood establishment on Church Street has expanded (with prices increasing accordingly) to include butcher blocks loaded with tasty salumi and wedges of cheese, nourishing stews of octopus tossed with olives and tomatoes in big earthen crocks, and numerous varieties of pasta smothered in country sauces, like rabbit ragù. If you have an urge for a very good linguine alle vongole made with lots of garlic and fresh shellfish, you will find it here, along with numerous salads, a selection of pizzas, and bountiful if somewhat greasy piles of fritto misto and fried calamari.
Some of these old hungry-man recipes work better than others. The four-cheese pizza I sampled had one too many cheeses (possibly it was the Gorgonzola), the rabbit ragù was oversalted, and the house lasagne seemed tepid, like it hadn’t been properly warmed through. The entrées, though, are big, generous, and generally well cooked. There are rows of grilled shrimp served over little wheels of fried zucchini, and pieces of organic salmon crisp-seared around the edges and sunk in a buttery celery-root purée. Pork, that great Tuscan specialty, comes in different, generally satisfying shapes and sizes (as an excellent chop, with green beans, or roasted, off the shoulder), and the veal Milanese is thick, well breaded, and served bone-in, on a butcher block. The desserts, if you have room for them, are similarly hefty and traditionalist. I liked the chocolate cake, which is riddled with crushed almonds, and the panna cotta, served with a pool of orange jam on top. The best of the bunch, predictably, is the tiramisu, which is creamy, boozy, and big as a brick.
Address: 25 W. Houston St., nr. Greene St.; 212-219-2113
Hours: Monday through Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, till 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $15; entrées, $18 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Arugula salad with apples, Italian sausage, mushroom pasta, veal cheeks, chocolate pudding.
Note: The restaurant serves a variety of fine panini for lunch and is open for weekend brunch.
Scratchpad: Admirable Italian cooking, raised a notch thanks to the profusion of wines.
Address: 301 Church St., at Walker St.; 212-334-0200
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m; Friday, 11:30 to midnight; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $14; entrées, $12 to $27.
Ideal Meal: Octopus, linguine alle vongole, salmon or roasted pork, tiramisu.
Note: Italian-oriented films play on the bar TV, which means you can eat your pasta to the reflected glow of Roman Holiday.
Scratchpad: Because of Jenkins, this is a better-than-average neighborhood joint. Despite her best efforts, it’s still a neighborhood joint.