Forget vats of lavish risottos laced with white truffles from Alba, and those groaning, boom-era food trolleys freighted with giant “bisteccas” for two carved tableside. These days, Nonna’s old-fashioned, home-style cooking is the defining style in Italian food. Exhibit A in this nostalgic, back-to-the-future trend is Osteria Morini, on Lafayette Street, which Michael White has designed as an homage to the rusticated cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s breadbasket. Unlike White’s pricey midtown seafood palace, Marea, the menu at this intimate little restaurant is stuffed with stout, earthy delicacies like braised coxcombs, pots of smooth, mushroom-laced egg-custard sformato, and great Frisbee-size wheels of spit-roasted porchetta. As in any self-respecting Italian kitchen, however, the main attractions are the handmade pastas—in particular the plump cappelletti dumplings stuffed with truffled mascarpone, and the tagliatelle, which is the color of egg yolks and smothered in an “antica” veal-and-pork ragù that tastes like it was transported from some intimate backroom kitchen in Bologna.
Similarly authentic rustic treats are available at Danny Meyer’s painstakingly rendered facsimile of a traditional Roman trattoria, Maialino. Unlike their countrymen, Romans don’t generally smother their pastas in rich ragùs. They fold them with eggs or Pecorino and flavor them the way Meyer’s accomplished, non-Roman chef, Nick Anderer, does, with clouds of crushed pepper and bits of guanciale. Some of these classics tend to work better than others (the bucatini all’Amatriciana is beautifully balanced, the carbonara too eggy). But the real treats at this deceptively sophisticated hotel-lobby trattoria are time-honored down-home recipes like frizzled artichokes with anchovy-bread sauce (carciofini fritti); a properly tangy, crackly-skinned version of pollo alla diavola, made with a plump, American barnyard bird; and glisteningly rich, faintly funky servings of trippa alla Trasteverina, which the kitchen folds with sprigs of fresh mint in classic Roman style.
Whenever I’m hungry for the ultimate in throwback Italian cuisine, however, I join the chaotic scrum at Torrisi Italian Specialties, on Mulberry Street, where those two former kitchen slaves Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi have made a reputation turning out ethereal upmarket versions of humble Italian-American deli favorites like pork chops smothered in peppers, and chicken Parm on a roll. My favorite time to drop into this shoebox-size no-reservations establishment is during lunch, when you can purchase the entire antipasti menu, plus a sandwich, for less than half the price of a full tasting-menu dinner at Del Posto. But if you’re looking for an accomplished but cut-rate sit-down feast, join the rabble at dinnertime, when $50 buys squeezy balls of dissolving mozzarella made to order in the kitchen, another good pollo alla diavola, and soft ricotta gnudi scattered with Pecorino. For dessert, there’s a selection of rainbow-colored Italian cookies served the way Little Italy grandmas like to serve them, on tiny plates of floral- patterned china.