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The Simpler Pleasures

Big, Fat Italian


It used to be fashionable, in certain highfalutin Italian circles, to mix risotto with a flourish in silver chafing dishes in the dining room, and have waiters perambulate your food around on trolley carts, the way snooty Parisians do. But these days, frippery is out and good old-fashioned gusto is back. To experience this feeding frenzy firsthand, try squeezing into Michael Psilakis and Donatella Arpaia’s latest midtown restaurant, Mia Dona. The sparely appointed little railroad space on 58th Street is routinely jammed with assorted portly pasta fiends, merrily pounding down generous Psilakis creations like chitarra heaped with Manila clams and strips of zucchini, and the famous house gnudi, which the chef drenches with truffle-butter sauce and ribbons of crunchy speck. The real house specialties, however, are the rustic carnivore dishes like delicately fatty lamb ribs, which Psilakis cakes in a rich layer of beet “gremolata,” or if you’re feeling brave, try the Bunyanesque sliced pork chop, which is plated over a huge thatch of frisée and crowned with a single fried egg.

The great hubcap-size veal alla Milanese is my favorite dish at Joe and Jason Denton’s trendy new establishment, Bar Milano, and whenever I’m wandering around the upper reaches of Lexington Avenue, I like to drop in to the inspired mom-and-pop joint Sfoglia, for a taste of the baccalà-and-ricotta-filled crespelle drizzled with leeks, raisins, and a touch of honey. Similarly filling delicacies are available at Scott Conant’s popular new downtown restaurant, Scarpetta, on the western end of 14th Street. The former uptown chef turns out bowls of his famous “creamy” polenta made with industrial amounts of Parmesan, a delicious spaghetti with basil and fresh plum tomatoes, and Conant’s formidably excellent baby-goat entrée served with an avalanche of summer peas and chopped fingerling potatoes. If you want to end your meal with a touch of lightness, try the coconut panna cotta for dessert, which is topped with melting coconut sorbet and a pool of sweet orange quince.

Michael White’s Alto is still the sophisticate’s choice in midtown for a decorous, upmarket Italian feed, and if you’re feeling nostalgic for the gilded era of big-city dining and have $175 to blow, you can’t do better than Mark Ladner’s impeccable, constantly evolving “Grand Tasting Menu” at Del Posto, down in the meatpacking district. But for authenticity and inventiveness combined with relative thrift, nothing beats Michael White’s $59 four-course prix fixe dinner at the newly refurbished Tudor City restaurant Convivio. Begin your banquet with a skewer of grilled quail with sweet onions, and a bite of the faintly boozy chicken-liver crostini made with onions sautéed in Marsala wine, then proceed on through the blizzard of pastas (fusilli smothered in braised pork shoulder, “tortelli di Amatrice” ingeniously stuffed with pork jowl) and generous entrées, like swordfish involtini filled with pine nuts and sweet currants, and the squab, which White somehow imbues with the crackly sweetness of Peking duck. Finally, if you’re still standing, chase it all down the way serious eaters in Sicily do, with the sturdy house version of “affogato al caffé,” made with several scoops of vanilla ice cream and spiked with bracing shots of fresh-brewed espresso.