Paper Chase

To find good food at bargain prices, sometimes you have to look beyond what’s written on the menu and engage in some Holmes-like sleuthing, a reading of the clues. There are the dead giveaways: Avoid a French bistro, for example, that tries to pass off bad bread. Or a Chinatown restaurant with a conspicuous lack of Chinese customers. But other signs are more subtle. It’s useful to notice, especially in Italian restaurants of a certain unassuming nature, what people are reading. If you happen to notice someone riffling through the fuchsia pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport, you’re in luck. The Milanese sports daily tends to be a familiar hot-pink presence wherever Italian expats congregate for a quick lunch or a leisurely dinner – a home away from home where they know the food will be reliably good and the welcome warm.

Michele (a.k.a. Michael) Colonna, chef-owner of the nine-month-old Picasso Cafe, says that everyone knows him for La Gazzetta, which he buys from a newsstand uptown and totes to work to share with his scorekeeping compatriots. We know him for his pizza – superbly charred, ultra-thin-crusted gems artfully arrayed with homemade mozzarella, mildly sweet tomato sauce, and the ideal ratio of topping to crust. Over the past decade, Colonna developed a following on Bleecker Street at Cafe Picasso (now under different management), a tiny room with a wood-burning brick oven and a leafy, romantic garden. But last year, a rent dispute with his landlord and the desire to expand his pizza-and-panini repertoire led him to a nondescript midtown block, where he and his sister Margherita Rotondi have room for a full kitchen, a spacious dining area decorated with a dorm’s worth of Picasso prints, and a neighborhood that’s gradually discovering the pizza maestro in its midst.

Colonna didn’t start out as a chef. He was born in Puglia, moved to Borough Park, returned to his homeland for a brief stint as a professional soccer player, and then, back in New York, stumbled into the restaurant business as a deliveryman. But when he finally devoted himself to pizza at Cafe Picasso, he cultivated a loyal following of celebrity gourmands like Tobey Maguire and Richard Gere, as well as professional connoisseurs like Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery and a trusted arbiter of all oven-baked things. It’s a testament to Colonna’s skill that his product hasn’t suffered since smoke-sensitive neighbors on 29th Street persuaded him to switch from his wood-burning beehive oven to a bright-red electric-powered Italian import that has happily proved equally adept at charring the crust and melding the flavors of his top-notch ingredients.

Colonna’s mother, Lina, bakes crusty round focaccia every morning, which her son transforms into crunchy bruschetta heaped with arugula and tomato (remarkably ripe for March), and delicious baked sandwiches, like the one with mortadella sliced thin and slathered with goat cheese. Margherita anticipates every need, and remembers every face that ever crossed the old Bleecker Street threshold. And here, Colonna has evolved from pizza man to full-fledged chef. He’s beefed up his menu with grilled lamb chops seasoned with balsamic vinegar and sage, and fennel sausage grilled flat with garlicky broccoli rabe. He’s filled out his modest wine selection with affordable bottles like a $21 Primitivo and an organic Montepulciano for $23. But despite his best, most ambitious efforts, Colonna just can’t divert us from his pizza arrabbiata, lavished with spicy oil and dotted with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and fragrant basil leaves. It’s a beaut, and just the thing to tear even the most obsessed soccer fan away from his reading material.

Caffè Linda is another refuge for italian exiles hungering for good food and football scores, both delivered by owner Claudio Marini in the cozy, comfortable premises he named for his wife. Marini, a Ligurian native, drifted around Manhattan’s Italian restaurants before teaming up with SoHo’s Pepe Rosso partners when they invaded midtown to launch a basement café for Benetton. Eventually, he took over the operation, keeping the inexpensive panini and pasta that earned him and his cooks a repeat clientele of diamond-district workers, midtown desk jockeys, and the inevitable Italian contingent – all of whom mourned the closing of the original Caffè Linda last summer, and rejoiced when Marini reopened three blocks east six weeks ago.

With enough space now for a real kitchen and a full bar, an affordable all-Italian wine list, and a seldom-seen Italian beer called Menabrea, there’s even more reason to celebrate. Marini has expanded his hours of operation to include dinner – a boon for late-night office workers in an area where a good alternative to fancy expense-account restaurants is as hard to find as a cab at 5 p.m. In addition to the short list of standard entrées, which includes a juicy chicken Milanese buried in a tangle of chopped arugula and tomato, the kitchen turns out daily specials like hearty lamb and rabbit stews served with mashed potatoes.

But we’re partial – if not addicted – to sandwiches like grilled chicken breast with roasted peppers and pesto on a warm, crusty baguette (lunch only), and especially the dozen or so exquisitely al dente pastas. We love the rigatoni meticulously tossed with fresh tomato, meltingly soft eggplant, and tangy ricotta salata; a rich and eggy penne carbonara; a toothsome pappardelle lightly dressed with pesto sauce; and an intensely meaty gnocchi Bolognese. But pay attention to the specials: If Marini touts the penne with Italian tuna and black olives, or spaghetti with baby clams in a garlicky white-wine sauce, by all means indulge him.

A gracious and charming host, Marini greets everyone personally and glides around the dining room, delivering dishes of complimentary bruschetta to begin the meal and sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint with the bill to end it. Not until the lunch crowd dissipates does he sit down to eat and immerse himself in La Gazzetta, or, as he calls it, “my Bible.” The restaurant is closed on Sunday, the day Marini puts aside for the real Linda. That is, after he finishes watching Italian soccer on Channel 31, an immutable weekend routine. “After two,” he tells his wife, “I’m all yours.”

Picasso Cafe Lunch, Mon. through Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; dinner, 6 to 11:30 p.m. Pizza, $10 to $12.50; entrées, $9.50 to $18. A.E., M.C., V.
Caffè Linda Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Mon. through Sat. 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Pasta and entrées, $7.95 to $16.95. AE, MC, V.

Paper Chase