Sometimes, in the hope of reviving a flagging fortune, standing out from the crowd-pleasing pack, or for the sake of nostalgia, an enterprising chef-restaurateur will pursue a culinary path paved with the taste memories of dishes he grew up with, expecting the dining public to eagerly follow. And sometimes it does. But just as often, as Seinfeld learned on the Babu episode, wherein Jerry persuades the hapless Babu to serve the food of his homeland, ultimately driving him out of business, the plan backfires. Or consider the real-life example of Gyroland, a talented Turkish kitchen that cautiously padded its kebab-and-meze menu with pizza and Philly cheese steaks, before bravely casting off its fast-food trappings and becoming Tarabya, a full-fledged Turkish restaurant. It didn’t take. The last time we swung by, it had metamorphosed yet again – this time, into Yo Sushi.
We wish better luck to William Mattiello, a chef and restaurateur from Modena who spent the past eight years playing it safe with a greatest-Italian-hits menu at Trattoria i Pagliacci. Last month, Mattiello renovated the casual pasta parlor, trading in its signature clown paintings for an uncluttered look of exposed brick and varnished wood, and reopened it as Via Emilia , an impassioned return to his culinary roots.
There are worse places to launch a cooking career than Emilia-Romagna, a region that’s famously blessed with spectacular raw ingredients and renowned culinary traditions, both of which Mattiello’s incorporated into his new menu. A poster in the foyer of someone making tortellini (the Emilia-Romagna pasta shape inspired, it’s said, by Venus’s navel) sets the delicious new tone. It only makes sense, then, to start with tortellini in brodo, the soothing Italian equivalent of matzoh-ball soup, in which crimped, delicately chewy pork-stuffed pasta pockets float in a simple chicken broth enhanced by a tableside sprinkle of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Emilia-Romagna’s most celebrated export.
Those same homemade tortellini reappear in a thick cream sauce, modestly portioned but immodestly rich. Tortelloni are supersized tortellini, and here they come stuffed with pleasingly bitter spinach and ricotta in a mild, chunky tomato sauce; with roasted chicken and wild mushrooms in pungent truffle oil; and with slightly sweet pumpkin in butter and sage. The regional specialty of gnocco fritto, puffy fritters served with a platter of expertly sliced cured meats, is street-festival fried dough gone to finishing school. Calzagatti, a latkelike disk of crispy polenta, is stuffed with a soffritto of kidney beans, pancetta, tomatoes, and onion, and served beside a wedge of taleggio over a layer of thin-sliced coppa. It’s a still life of Italian flavors, and infinitely more interesting than the cotechino, a soft, mild hunk of Modena sausage on a bed of listless lentils.
Modena is the birthplace of balsamic vinegar, which makes an inspired appearance in the smoked-duck salad. It’s less successful in a monochromatic linguine special served in a sauce of vinegar and garlic cloves that ends up tasting very little like either. The lasagna’s another story: crumbly with meat and bolstered with béchamel, oozing and succulent in a way that would scandalize those well-meaning folks at Lean Cuisine.
Notice a pattern? The food Mattiello grew up with isn’t exactly light. But if you prefer to eat that way, try one of the seafood entrées. There was an early run on bluefish one night, so we settled for the salmon special with low expectations. (Honestly, how often is salmon truly special?) This one was moist and tender, marinated in wine and tomatoes, baked in parchment paper, and served with dark-roasted potatoes. Another happy surprise was the cosciotto d’agnello. We imagined a rib-sticking hunk of meat, caveman food, but got instead a relatively dainty plate of almost transparently thin slices of herby, gamy lamb, blanketed with cannellini beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms.
For dessert, there’s a light, fluffy tirami su, and a wineglass full of lovely hazelnut gelato drenched in espresso, both holdovers from the restaurant’s previous incarnation, and neither particularly Emilia-Romagnan. But they’re vastly preferable to the unfathomable mud pie, an uncharacteristic sop to the American appetite. “To me, this is a bit of a gamble,” says Mattiello about his new culinary direction. “I’m very proud, very excited, a bit scared.” He needn’t be. There’s no place, after all, like home.
Via Emilia, 240 Park Avenue South, near 20th Street (212-505-3072). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $4.50 to $7.50; entrées $7.50 to $15. Cash only.