Wall-to-Wall Italy

Not everyone is primed for virtual escape to Tuscany. As the old adage goes, you can take the boy out of Manhattan, but you can’t defuse those jangled Manhattan dendrites. Friends call to tell me how they huddled in exasperation at a table in Colina, dismissing the waiter and demanding to see the chef, Jonathan Waxman, nomad pioneer of California purity, visible coaching his crew behind the hanging copper pots in the open kitchen.

“Jonathan, we have doctorates from Harvard and Princeton, and we can’t make sense of this menu,” they complained. And I admit, one does need a crib sheet or a guru. The words are in English, but … the waiters seem confused, too. “You’ll see,” Jonathan said. “Let us show you.” And so began a feast that stretched toward midnight.

To tell the truth, that’s what tickles me about Colina. Excess. We are whisked from a rather grubby stretch of the Flatiron to the casual rustic sprawl of an Italian country inn – imported from Brazil, of all places, tile by tile, beam by beam, to house this ABC Carpet & Home fantasy in what used to be the pine-furniture department. Soon, our waxed wood tabletop is covered with a platter of antipasti (prosciutto, wild-boar sausage, vegetables, lightly dressed and naked), skinny breadsticks with a nice stubble of coarse salt, pizza of sorts (good, bad, and whaddayamean), exquisitely seared foie gras and caramelized onions on a crouton too stiff to saw or bite. And this is only the first act of Colina’s $55 country dinner. Waiters circle the table with copper sauté pans, spooning out walnut pesto ravioli, pappardelle, and pasta al forno so sticky and rich one nibble ought to be enough, but your fork has a mind of its own. Next comes a sampling of creatures that swim, fly, and lumber. More, it seems, than some people can handle.

“But we can’t eat like this,” protest clusters of pilgrims come down from upper-class Zip Codes. And they have a sympathetic ear in Jeff Salaway, the Sirio of the Hamptons, their very own host at Nick & Toni’s and the managing operator here. “We don’t have three hours for dinner,” they chide him. I say thank Heaven for spandex. We have trained for this excess: we self-styled foodies and winos (professional and amateur), the Waxman groupies, the Michelin-star-struck, the sommeliers and cuisinary royalty dropping by to see what the star whisk is up to. Alice Waters and disciples within grease-spatter range of the kitchen. Jean-Georges seated discreetly in the rear. Larry Forgione in his whites, pitching in.

I’m a flea-market junkie. I always want to buy everything in ABC’s musty cobwebbed windows. So I’m a fool for Colina, this amazing apparition with its tall cedar trees and rosemary shrubs in pots, the majestic wrought-iron gates that divide the cantina with its mesh and twisted vines above. And in the dining room: the mix-and-match tables, the fool-nobody faux windows, the curved terra-cotta roof tiles and imported beams, the tall communal table with its bar stools and dramatic pileups of red peppers or green artichokes.

And this is the way I love to eat. A little taste of everything. I didn’t even see the menu on my first outing. Just cried, “Let the chef decide.” True, I couldn’t help noticing that certain waiters seemed disoriented, and certain dishes were sadly lacking. I ignored the bland, soggy pappardelle and inept beef-cheek ravioli, dedicating myself to the savory, fat tubes baked in the oven with red and white chard, mushrooms, and goops of taleggio. By the time we’d gone through marvelous spring lamb, perfect bistecca fiorentina, and tenderest suckling pig just off the spit, I was hopelessly dazzled. Indeed, even a side dish as simple as beets, exquisitely crumbed and roasted, and a dessert like the intense rhubarb compote under floats of meringue and lemon cream have our table of foodniks raving.

I figure Waxman just needs time to whip the kitchen into submission. After all, this New York-born icon of California cool shaped our taste for minimalism at the lamented Jams, experimented at long-gone Bud’s and Hulot’s, launched Bryant Park Grill and Nick & Toni’s Manhattan satellite. But some weeks later, not much has changed. Waxman, looking ever more Italianate with his blondish curls and cherubic cheeks, is stymied because his all-you-can-eat drama has thrown timing off kilter. Still, I am in a better mood. After several unfriendly wines, I’ve found a winner, the Toni, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzi ($45) chosen by the sommelier for its virtues as well as its name. We’re back with friends to try the Ligurian menu. There are no choices to make – it simply comes: Mostly vegetable antipasti, luscious seafood bisque, cleanly fried vegetable fritters, a fine anchovy-olive pizzette, and chickpea crêpes more like breakfast pancakes than the farinata we buy in wondrously greasy tatters from the pizzeria on the square in Pietrasanta every summer.

Italian country food is tricky. It can be awful. Only once have I been served a fish that wasn’t overcooked on the Tuscan seashore – fish can be too dry at Colina too – but in Italy you get a drizzle of heady olive oil to enliven the bronzino. In Tuscany, cooks rarely use four ingredients when three are traditional. Inevitably, one ingredient is salt. (Often in excess.) Garlic, usually in judicious doses, helps, too. Alas, in the worship of freshness and purity, flavor is sacrificed in too many antipasti and pastas here. But the crumbed tuna, barely seared (no Italian would dream of such savagery), has its own intrinsic flavor. If you’re counting calories or saving room, bide your time to indulge in Waxman’s alchemy with meat and birds. A night in brine transforms rotisseried breast of turkey with impossible juiciness. Squab cut into voluptuous rare chunks is a revelation, too. The bistecca costs extra, but I can’t let our friends leave for Tuscany without a sample of Colina’s, tenderer than any fiorentina they will taste this summer.

In suckling pig as in kilims and down pillows, the customer is sometimes right. So now there’s a $45 espresso menu, the five-course country “guided tour of the menu” for $55, June’s $65 Lombardy tasting, and a sample-of-everything chef’s whimsy for $75. If you’re like me, you won’t wait for a white sale.

Colina, 35 East 18th Street (505-2233). Lunch (beginning June 9), noon to 3 p.m., dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Open daily. A.E., M.C., V.

Wall-to-Wall Italy