Restaurateurs, like TV producers, stand-up comics, and gold prospectors, operate in a landscape fraught with extreme hazard and duress. So once they hit on a formula that works, they tend to repeat it, often with a kind of slavish devotion. Sasha Muniak’s formula for success appears to be this: Find a smallish, offbeat space in the West Village, pattern the floors with lots of terrazzo tiles to ensure the noise levels will be deafening, contrive a menu comprising the latest Italian dining trends, then hire the most promising female chef you can find to execute it. The formula worked almost too well at Muniak’s Gusto Ristorante e Bar Americano, a clamorous establishment whose chef, Jody Williams, soon departed to run Keith McNally’s equally frantic Italian brasserie, Morandi. Now comes Centro Vinoteca, a lively little noise box of a place that opened this summer in a formerly cursed location (most recently, it was a carryout Thai restaurant) in the scruffy lower regions of Seventh Avenue.
Like Gusto, the dominant stylistic motif at Centro Vinoteca is a sleek, fashion-conscious black-and-white. The brick walls (and the terrazzo) have all been washed a bright, Mediterranean white. The tabletops are black and so are the chairs, and the low ceilings are adorned, here and there, with the kind of moon-shaped mother-of-pearl mobiles you see in fashion shoots dating from the sixties. If you show up for your table at 8:30 on a Friday evening, you will find the diminutive rooms filled with a boisterous and (as my friend the steak loon couldn’t help noticing) largely female clientele. The menu is an almost textbook compilation of currently trendy Italian dining styles—small plates, or “piccolini”; an eclectic selection of wines from the “enoteca” wine bar; and rustic pastas salted with an assortment of fatty pork products. The chef in charge is Anne Burrell, a former sous chef at Felidia and a protégée of the great maestro himself, Mario Batali.
As is the fashion these days, the little piccolini dishes patter down on the table in endless waves. I counted seventeen of them on the menu (we liked the truffled deviled eggs and the eggplant fritters), but by number six or so it was time to move on. The antipasti were heftier and more carefully executed (try the good, rusticated pizza with layers of spicy sausage, stracchino cheese, and arugula). But the real reason for visiting Centro Vinoteca is the pastas. Like Batali, Burrell has a knack for taking big, potentially overwhelming flavors and imbuing them with sweetness and light. Her ravioli (one filled with a single gently poached egg, the other with broccoli rabe and Swiss chard) are models of that temperamental genre, and so are the gnocchi, which are crisped around the edges, sunk in a richly chunky lamb Bolognese, and dusted with frizzled onions.
I could have eaten the gnocchi all evening, but it was my duty to tackle the “secondi” dishes, some of which were better than others, and many of which packed a serious wallop. They included a decent, Batali-size lamb shank, a well-brined pork chop (scattered with curls of pork rind for good measure), and a $36 grilled rib eye, which the steak loon considered excellent but which was charred to a kind of dull grayness on the evening I tried it. My sausage-stuffed rabbit involtini were rock hard, too, which didn’t seem to bother my wife, who surveyed the little room and declared, “I like it here.” What did she like, exactly? Maybe it was the tarallucci, which are little cookie rings served with a pot of salted caramel, or the “crostata” plum tart, which had a nice freshness to it. Or maybe it was just Muniak’s elusive, now-time-tested formula, which seems to keep people returning to his uneven, frenetically stylish little restaurants again and again.
Accademia di Vino, which opened recently in another jinxed location (this one a little bunker of a space on Third Avenue and 64th Street), is also a new Italian joint eager to exhibit the latest dining trends. And why not? Given the doomed address (the space’s last tenant was a failed Peking-duck restaurant), the proprietors, who also operate the popular ’Cesca on the West Side, are going to need all the help they can get. They’ve redone the sepulchral room in cozy, neighborly tones of brown wood and beige, and they’ve installed two long bars, one down below and the other on street level, where you can sip your glass of Barolo in the glow of not one but two flat-screen TVs. Kevin Garcia, who oversees the kitchen at ’Cesca, has also thrown everything he can think of onto the restaurant’s bewilderingly large menu, including ten kinds of salumi, eight grilled pizzas (try the soppressata with red peppers), three chopped tartares, seven salads, five varieties of pressed panini, fourteen Italian cheeses, eight pastas, and more small-plate carpaccios, tramezzini, and antipasti than I bothered to count.
Given this scattershot approach, some dishes are bound to hit and a few to miss. I liked the very fresh crudo (king salmon, scallops, toro flavored with lemon zest), most of the pastas (chewy bucatini carbonara with plenty of guanciale, small orecchiette dressed with broccoli rabe and crumblings of sausage), and the fat Parmesan fritters specked with nuggets of prosciutto. I didn’t like the pork panini, which was stick-dry, or the strange, unwieldy gnocchi, which were sliced in discs, like sausages from North Carolina, and drenched in a weirdly sweet, nutty ragù. But you can obtain a first-class veal chop at Accademia di Vino, as well as a well-aged Nebraska prime rib, cut in the Florentine style and scattered with frighteningly heavy Tuscan beans. The desserts aren’t memorable (the best, I dimly recall, is a serviceable panna cotta with a glazing of sugarlike crème brûlée), but they’re not horrible either. If you don’t mind subterranean dining, and are looking for a decent meal in that great gastronomic wasteland above Bloomingdale’s, you could do an awful lot worse.
Address: 74 Seventh Ave. S., at Bleecker St.; 212-367-7470
Ideal Meal: Eggplant fritters, grilled pizzetta, crispy gnocchi with lamb Bolognese, lamb shank, tarallucci cookies.
Note: For peace and quiet, visit at lunchtime, when chef Burrell serves a good “meatball” burger (made with beef, pork, and veal) and a Cubano-style panini with pressed pork.
Scratchpad: The quarters are cramped and the food’s a little uneven, but we’ll give a star for the pastas, a few of which might even be worth a second trip.
Accademia di Vino
Address: 1081 Third Ave., nr. 64th St.; 212-888-6333
Ideal Meal: Crudo, Parmesan fritters with prosciutto, grilled pizza, bucatini carbonara, Tuscan steak, panna cotta.
Note: The restaurant has an excellent and generally well-priced 500-bottle wine cellar.
Scratchpad: This is a neighborhood Italian joint designed to survive over the long haul. Will it survive in this cursed space? If it doesn’t, we’re betting nothing will.