The recession may not have been kind to upscale fusion chefs or vintners from Champagne, but spend time feasting in the numerous new Italian restaurants that have been popping up all over town, and you’d think the Great Bust of ’09 barely happened at all. Take Emma Hearst’s elegant new establishment, Sorella, located, improbably enough, on Allen Street among the jumble of bodegas and ramshackle kitchen-appliance shops on the fringes of Chinatown. When I dropped in not long ago, the swank, high-ceilinged space was jammed with crowds of uptown culinary thrill seekers nibbling at Hearst’s constantly evolving Northern Italian small-plates creations, like curls of agnolotti with beef short ribs and sage butter and tangles of thin, egg-noodle tajarin doused in a delicate lamb ragù sprinkled with crushed pistachios and mint. But maybe the best dish of all is the ethereal, crostini-like pâté de fegato, constructed with whipped chicken-liver mousse, bits of bacon, and a single, perfectly fried egg set on an English muffin griddled in duck fat.
The freshly rolled buckwheat pizzoccheri piled with Brussels sprouts and hot Fontina cheese is my favorite pasta at Gabe Thompson and Joe Campanele’s swank West Village noodle bar, L’Artusi, and whenever I’m in the mood for proper old-world opulence, I’ll drop into Tony May’s showy new downtown restaurant, SD26, for a taste of Odette Fada’s classic “uovo in raviolo,” which the talented chef garnishes with browned truffled butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. From there, our nostalgic bull-market tour moves up Madison Avenue, to the Bruno brothers’ clubby new Upper East Side venture, Caravaggio. The intimate, brightly lit room is filled, most evenings, with neighborhood plutocrats indulging in Madoff-era delicacies like white truffles over fettuccine ($130) and bottles of extravagantly overpriced Tuscan wine. Many of the butter-and-cream-bombed pastas are a meal in themselves, but the dish I liked best was that sturdy peasant specialty bollito misto, which the kitchen serves as an appetizer, with a bowl of fresh salsa verde on the side.
Until Keith McNally’s eagerly awaited Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria opens down on the Bowery, Jim Lahey’s spare, pizza-geek mecca, Co., is my favorite place to go to experience the great New York gourmet pizza revolution in all its glory. Jason and Joe Denton’s snug new meatpacking-district venture, Corsino, is the hipster’s choice for a quick midnight snack of meatballs cut with brisket from Heritage Farms, and the crunchy, veal-stuffed saltimbocca panini, and if you’re searching for a good platter of gnocchi (piled with creamy pork shoulder and a touch of lemon zest) late at night on the mean streets of Nolita, you’ll find it on the surprisingly accomplished menu at Travertine, on Kenmare Street. For all other things Italian, however, take a seat at one of the tables overlooking the park at Missy Robbins’s new Time Warner Center outlet, A Voce Columbus. Begin your banquet with a basket of moon-shaped cassoncini fritters stuffed with crescenza cheese and Swiss chard, followed by strips of crispy, chewy pork belly, which the chef decorates with a scattering of crushed pistachios and figs. Robbins’s version of rabbit (stuffed with housemade sausage, over whipped potatoes and fennel) is one of the best you’ll taste in this overrusticated, rabbit-saturated town. And if you have the urge for a little sweetness at the end of your feast, call for the smooth panna cotta, which is served in a glass snifter and dappled with Meyer lemons and thyme.