Cheap Eats

Favorite pasta parlors.

Grate stuff: Rigatoni melanzane e ricotta salata at La Madrastra.
The recent history of cheap Italian restaurants in New York is a befuddling chronicle of families -- some extended, some dysfunctional -- writ large in red sauce. The tale goes something like this: A casual, rustic trattoria is born. It thrives. It either expands or clones itself or, more often, loses a beloved maître d', or a star cook, who goes off to open a similarly cheap and delicious place of his own. Our story focuses on what we'll call the Four Families -- a loosely connected network of irresistibly cheap Italian restaurants and their offspring.

The most far-flung family is the Pepe posse, engendered by Pepe Rosso to Go in SoHo. What began as little more than a takeout alcove with a sidewalk table, scrumptious focaccia sandwiches, and robust pastas (all hovering around $10) begat Pepe Verde in the West Village, Pepe Giallo in Chelsea, Capa and Paprika in the East Village, Caffè Linda in midtown, and Pepe Viola in Brooklyn. Ownership varies, but the grub, like a terrifically savory Bolognese, remains the comfortingly familiar lingua franca.

Then there's Frank in the East Village, a trattoria so tiny and overrun it soon expanded into an adjacent storefront, which became a wine bar called Vera. Besides becoming a destination for crunchy fennel salad, mozzarella flown in from Naples, and rosemary-roasted chicken, owner Frank Prisinzano's minuscule restaurant also served as a pit stop for a couple of Italian pals who worked there briefly before heading deeper into the East Village to open Max, which recently spawned a Morningside Heights outpost called Max SoHa (South Harlem). Both excel at rich, zesty ragùs and the Italian-style meat loaf called polpettone ($10.95-$11.95).

Piadina, best-known for its house bread, a delectably chewy Emilia-Romagnan stuffed flatbread, was the rustic, candlelit precursor of Malatesta and Gradisca (all in Greenwich Village). When chef Salvatore Zapparata left Piadina to open La Madrastra, he brought his personal takes on northern and southern classics like a particularly savory, deeply flavored rigatoni melanzane e ricotta salata ($9) and a green vegetable soup from his hometown in Sicily but conscientiously left the signature piadina behind.

The six-year-old Il Bagatto began as a joint Alphabet City venture by Roman chef-owners who've since parted ways, but their partnership has spawned two new spots, one opened by each original owner -- Il Posto Accanto, the wine bar next to Il Bagatto,and Miss Williamsburg Diner, a rehabbed Italian-flavored eatery in industrial Williamsburg. A broken home, perhaps, but one that's given us three distinctive sources for cheap, carefully made fare like perfect bruschetta, tortellini con ragù, thin strips of rosemary-infused beef called straccetti (Il Bagatto, $5-$12), a lovely selection of panini and cocci, hot crock pots full of vegetables and bubbling cheese (Il Posto Accanto, $7-$9), and hake casserole with zucchini and potatoes (Miss Williamsburg, $14).

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· PEPE ROSSO TO GO, 149 Sullivan St., 212-677-4555
· FRANK, 88 Second Ave., 212-420-0202
· MAX, 51 Ave. B, 212-539-0111
· PIADINA, 57 W. 10th St., 212-460-8017
· LA MADRASTRA, 93-95 First Ave., 212-475-6620
· IL BAGATTO, 192 E. 2nd St., 212-228-0977
· IL POSTO ACCANTO, 190 E. 2nd St., 212-228-3562
· MISS WILLIAMSBURG DINER, 206 Kent Ave., Brooklyn, 718-963-0802