170 E 81st St between Lexington and Third Aves (212-570-5100). Subway: 6 to 77th St. Mon--Fri 11:30am--11pm; Sat, Sun 5--11pm. Average main course: $21.
This Upper East Side space has gone through as many face-lifts as Jocelyn Wildenstein—morphing from a New American bistro (Butterfield 81) to a barbecue shack (Pearson’s Texas Barbecue) to its latest upscale incarnation, a trattoria. The neighborhood doesn’t exactly need another Italian restaurant, but Antonucci is no basic red-sauce joint. Owner Francesco Antonucci brought us Remi in midtown, and his loyal patrons have followed him uptown. Surprisingly, there are only two pastas on the menu (a daily risotto and a handmade spaghetti). Instead, Antonucci focuses on offbeat rustic starters and meaty mains. How many Italian joints offer a bone-marrow appetizer or, for that matter, lovely grilled quail with tart pomegranate-and-balsamic chutney? The chef takes welcome liberties with traditional bagna cauda (essentially an anchovy-spiked fondue), for dipping a winning selection of warm roasted veggies into. Branzino, an often dull standby, is baked here in an immensely satisfying salt-and-rosemary crust (pictured). But beware: After only six weeks in business, the kitchen often finds itself drowned in orders; the tasty food can be slow to arrive. Relax with a reasonably priced bottle of wine; we spotted several below $40.—TONY