The Italian Top Ten

Nothing seems to cover all the culinary bases quite like a good fix of Italian food. At least that’s my explanation for the more or less continuous profusion of top-quality Italian establishments all around town. A quick check of local menus reveals fine cooking from Rome, Florence, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Naples, and all sorts of points in between. You’ll find rustic retro classics like tripe alla parmigiana (Babbo) and goat cooked for hours on end (L’Impero). You’ll find fusion creations like lemon fried chicken (Beppe), spare ribs (Wednesdays at Tuscan), and the now-ubiquitous sashimi-style crudi of raw salmon or fluke (Esca). Which may be why Gael Greene, Hal Rubenstein, and I, in choosing our favorite Italian joints, are happily, even contentedly, all over the map (though we also agreed on more than half of the ten selections). What follows, in no particular order of preference, is our attempt to cull, to codify, and, of course, to celebrate a few of the top purveyors of the city’s most durable and varied cuisine.

The dining room at L'Impero.

Capretto—slow-roasted goat—is an ancient Florentine specialty, and now, thanks to the talents of Scott Conant, you can get it daily in Tudor City. Conant’s version even tastes good, served with crispy potatoes, English peas, and caramelized shallots, plus a helping of the smooth house polenta, spooned from a copper pot. You’ll also find lobster scented with summer truffles, sweetbreads set over little bows of farfalle, and agnolotti stuffed with braised duck and foie gras. Conant’s food is the opposite of rustic. It’s classic, in a refined, almost French style, and it’s served, in the proper Tudor City manner, with pomp and flourish.
45 Tudor City Place (212-599-5045)

Rustic and brick oven are two overused terms in Italian-food circles, but if you want to trace them to their absolute, etymological core, this is a good place to start. Since opening over three years ago on the fringes of Little Italy, Frank De Carlo’s spare, bunker-style restaurant has been a late-night haunt for food scholars seeking the essence of roasted eggplant, say, or perfectly oval pizza bianca, or crackly, wood-cooked sardines. The food is served at crowded oak tables, in piping hot terra-cotta pots, and the feeling you always get, late in the evening, when the ovens are roaring, is of taking part in a communal, mildly bacchanalian, gourmet event.
194 Elizabeth Street (212-965-9511)

Chef Mario Batali’s great achievement—one among many—has been to turn animal viscera into the epitome of high cuisine. On a recent visit, it was a pleasure (from our usual perch at the bar) to watch a thin, bejeweled woman pick heartily (if that’s possible) at a little pyramid of warm lamb’s tongue. Calves’ brains were on the menu, and pig’s-foot Milanese, and the usual mash of goose liver or beef cheeks stuffed in the freshest ravioli. We should also mention the wines, which were delicious, the impeccably inventive pastas, and the room, which night after night achieves that elusive combination of intimacy and style better than any other restaurant in town.
110 Waverly Place (212-777-0303)

With its patented “cheese box,” glass elevator, and rows of tangerine lampshades, Stephen Hanson’s grandiose flagship establishment feels like a twenty-first-century version of the old Italian speakeasy, run gloriously amok. Only at this speakeasy, you can procure chef Michael White’s puffy gnocchi made with Yukon-gold potatoes, prosciutto-laced garganelli bombed with truffle butter, and truncheon-size veal chops scented with sage. And then there are the drinks: great, gleaming bottles of Barolo reverently decanted at the wine station and the wondrous cappuccino martini, served straight up, in the classic speakeasy style, replete with floating coffee beans. 206 Spring St. (212-653-0100)

Gonzo's sopressata grilled pizza.

Every top-ten Italian list needs a pizza joint, and—with apologies to John’s, Lombardi’s, and Brooklyn’s great Di Fara’s—this, for the time being, is ours. Vincent Scotto is a master of the dark and much-imitated art of the grilled pizza. Which means his pies are neither oily nor clogged with cheese but light, crispy, and endlessly various. There were twelve kinds the last time we checked, and you can eat two of them (topped with wild mushrooms, for example, or arugula and shavings of prosciutto) and not feel a thing. After that, why not delve into a bowl of orecchiette folded with kale, or perhaps a platter of calf’s liver, artfully prepared with caramelized onions and a drop of brandy.
140 W. 13th St. (212-645-4606)

Before David Pasternack set up shop on Ninth Avenue, the average New Yorker’s conception of Italian seafood was a stuffed clam, possibly, followed by waves of rubbery calamari. Not anymore. Day in and day out, Pasternack produces a veritable rainbow of Mediterranean delicacies, beginning with his famous crudi and ending, well, wherever his imagination takes him. Try the dense branzino caked in salt; the linguini tossed with clams, hot pepper, and bits of pancetta; or the superior grilled octopus, which is set atop a pile of warm corona beans and has the soft, faintly chewy consistency of a well-toasted marshmallow. 402 W. 43rd St. (212-564-7272)

“A Roman menu with a New York balance” is the motto of this Batali-and-Bastianich-owned trattoria. We should also mention that this often-mobbed spot is best on weekdays, at lunch, when you can enjoy your perfectly Roman bowl of spaghetti alla carbonara without being elbowed, New York–style, in the nose. Chef Mark Ladner is equally adept at rustic, earthy items (pork shins, lamb sausages) and elegantly smooth ragùs (cauliflower most recently). The house cold-cut plate is worth a special trip, and so is the crispy duck “agrodolce,” drowned in fat raisins. For an elegant children’s feast (simple buttered spaghetti, usually), there’s no better place in town.
170 Thompson St. (212-982-5089)

Celeste's tagliatelle with shrimp, cabbage, and cheese.

The Upper West Side is not a traditional hotbed for Italian cuisine, but Giancarlo Quadalti and his partner, Roberta Riccioli, are working diligently to change all that. Their modest cash-only restaurant (they also own Teodora, on 57th Street) features the kind of alfresco dining porch rarely seen on the upper reaches of Amsterdam Avenue. The brick oven turns out a fine repertoire of pizzas, but it’s the small, fried dishes in the Neapolitan style we like best, like crinkly artichoke hearts, crisp zucchini blossoms, or shrimp mixed with fried vegetables in a kind of fritto misto. For dessert, the very fine gelato is Sicilian, as it happens, and the cheese selection is as economical as it is diverse.
502 Amsterdam Avenue, near 84th Street (212-874-4559)

al di là
This funky, terminally popular Brooklyn mom-and-pop operation is different from other Italian mom-and-pop operations in one crucial respect. There are no Mama’s meatballs on the menu, no lasagne, and not even a whiff of baked ziti. Issuing instead from the icebox-size kitchen are savory helpings of rabbit covered in black olives, plates of chubby malfatti (Swiss-chard dumplings bathed in brown butter and sage), and charred flaps of hanger steak tinged with sweet vinegar. Anna Klinger is the chef; her husband, Emiliano Coppa, works the front of the room. As fate would have it, they became a legitimate mom-and-pop operation just last fall with the birth of their first child, Sasha.
248 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn (718-783-4565)

San Domenico NY
Elegant dining, Italian-style, has always been a singular experience in this town. There’s the courteous headwaiter, wearing his dark tuxedo and even darker tan. There are the monogrammed plates and the dulcet, piped-in tunes by Sinatra. At San Domenico, as a bonus, there’s also the food: Wet, baby-white mounds of mozzarella; egg-filled ravioli bathed in truffle butter; extravagant bowls of lobster spaghetti cooked with basil, cherry tomatoes, and a hint of pepperoncino. None of the entrées on chef Odette Fada’s superior menu (we admire the veal in particular, and the osso buco) seems to cost less than $30, but every six months or so, when you want to feel like a real New Yorker (and your boss or grandmother is paying), it’s worth it.
240 Central Park South (212-265-5959)

Photographs by Kenneth Chen.

The Italian Top Ten