Not so long ago, brick ovens were all the rage in boisterous Italian dining circles, and rustico was the word on every fatso chef’s lips. But these days, whenever my Upper East Side mother asks where to go for the latest in Italian culinary fashion, I direct her to Dona, just off Third Avenue, in midtown, where the choice banquettes are occupied by uptown matrons sporting $300 hairdos and the gentlemen clustered around the bar in the evenings tend to be dressed in sharp Italian suits. Donatella Arpaia calls the food at her glamorous new venture “southern European,” and her hypertalented chef, Michael Psilakis, happens to be Greek-American. But the best stuff on the elaborate, always evolving menu is resolutely Italian, like inspired crudo combinations of uni, crushed fava beans, and burrata cheese; little half-moon mezzaluna raviolis stuffed with chestnuts and duck; and the plump, Florentine gnudi, a dish so rich in butter and truffles that it caused the assembled gastronomes at my table to clap their fat little hands with glee.
Andrew Carmellini made his reputation the old-fashioned way, toiling with a bunch of volatile Frenchmen in the kitchens of the venerable uptown restaurant Cafe Boulud. Now he brings all of this Escoffier-approved training to bear at his high-design Italian restaurant in the Flatiron district, A Voce. It’s a curious, retro pleasure to swivel around in the restaurant’s posh Eames chairs, while bolting down bowls of simple ravioli (the recipe belonged to Carmellini’s grandmother) and helpings of fresh-made pappardelle smothered in a rich, slightly minty beef Bolognese and scoops of ricotta. But in accordance with the new Haute Italian style, the most successful recipes tend to be the more refined ones, like roasted squab on crostini loaded with diced mushrooms and foie gras sauce, carne crudo (steak tartare, with a dainty shot of truffle sauce on the side), and little platoons of duck meatballs, mixed with foie gras and ground pork, and served on parsnips, pureed, in the old French way, with several pounds of butter.
No tour of fancy Italian cuisine would be complete without a visit to one of Scott Conant’s posh restaurants. So we’ll drop into Alto, for a bite of his signature Alpine ravioli bombed with more truffles, before journeying down to Falai, the new epicenter of Italian chic, on Clinton Street. Iacopo Falai, who learned all about high style during his stint as the pastry chef at Le Cirque, has hung crystal chandeliers over the bar of his snug little establishment and decorated the walls with big floral designs delicately painted in shades of white and gray. If you order ravioli, chances are they will be stuffed with a savory mash of short ribs, and the closest thing to traditional red sauce on the menu is a rich venison ragu. The risottos have that luxurious, creamy quality you find in the big expense-account joints uptown, and if it’s simple pasta you want (and truffles are in season), do what the downtown high rollers do and order the $45 plate of fresh, eggy fettucini, tossed with butter and shavings of white truffle from Alba.