New York City is in the grip of an Italian small-plates epidemic. What was once the province of the Spanish tapas bar is now a cross-cultural scourge: With so many shareable platters making the rounds, the formal and soothing rhythms of a grown-up Italian restaurant—tables swathed in white linen, four modest courses from antipasti to dolce—seem just about extinct here in Gotham.
Enter Cesare Casella, a literal dean of Italian food in the city (he heads up the Italian Culinary Academy downtown), who makes a formidable case for keeping the old form alive at his new spot on Madison Avenue. Here is smooth buttoned-up service, an impressive selection of Italian wine, and food that’s creative, interesting and properly portioned for a languid meal. The restaurant a second, much larger version of his same-named spot on the Upper West Side showcases the history and regional breadth of Italian cuisine.
Beyond the retail window display of cured meats lies a theatrical dining room, from set designer Dante Ferretti, combining faux-Roman statues and peeling-paint frescoes with recessed spotlights and modern white leather armchairs. Casella and his chef de cuisine—American Will Hickox (formerly of Del Posto)—mix regions and eras in a menu that’s just as diverse as the space.
Oysters “Apicius”—named for the ancient Roman cook said to have pioneered the long-distance shipping of the bivalve—are gently baked in the shell under a potent coat of bread crumbs, pancetta, walnuts and anchovies. A capon salad highlights more-upscale technique, combining edible flowers and crisp pickled carrots with the bird’s dark meat in confited strips and a chilled, stuffed roulade of breast meat.
Casella hedges his bets here, offering familiar peasant dishes alongside the progressive stuff. White bean, fresh tomato and old-bread panzanella is a straightforward classic. Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and crumbled pork sausage is pretty textbook as well. But the food is much more exciting when it goes out on a limb. The old prohibitions on mixing seafood and cheese have no standing at all with Italy’s cutting-edge chefs. Casella weighs in with long, thin bavettine in an oceanic carbonara: a rich, creamy mix of egg yolk, flaked sea bass, lemon zest, bottarga and grana padano. His savarin of risotto—cooked rice pressed into a ring mold, draped in prosciutto and baked, then surrounded on the plate by miniature meatballs and three different sauces—is the sort of rewarding but labor-intensive throwback that might’ve been cast for a role in Big Night.
Entrées include a decent-enough falling-off-the-bone osso buco, but Italian standards aren’t really the draw here. A mixed seafood couscous—jammed with meaty octopus, mussels, clams and head-on shrimp—beautifully spotlights the North African influence in Sicilian cuisine. A grill-marked cauliflower “steak” with black rice and slivered almonds is a funky, nutty, meatless triumph—and squarely on trend in these haute-veg times.
Desserts combine contemporary and old-school impulses—segregated elsewhere—onto a single plate. Rich, sweet classics are brought up to date with a savory touch: a candied prosciutto tuile on a dense cylinder of chocolate-caramel mousse, a drizzle of tarragon oil on an intense gianduja parfait.
While the restaurant’s return to traditional Italian indulgence might find an easy home on Madison Avenue—the place draws a flush East Side crowd—it probably won’t launch an upscale wave in the city. Its real lessons, though, are simple enough: Italian food, diverse and intriguing, is much more than a neighborhood-trattoria cliché.
Eat this: Oysters “Apicius,” capon salad, bavettine alla carbonara, savarin del Parmacotta, seafood couscous, cauliflower steak, caramello with prosciutto tuile
Drink this: The restaurant has only a beer-and-wine license. Its substantial all-Italian wine list features some extravagant bottles ($1,000 Gaja?), along with quite a few reasonable finds. Try the food-friendly petit rouge from the Valle d’Aosta—a funky Italian wine with a French name (it’s produced near the border) and an intense minerality ($49).
Sit here: The windowless dining room can feel claustrophobic. Request a table in the middle under the skylight, or up front with a view out the door looking onto Madison Avenue. Solo diners can pull up a stool at the short, curvy bar.
Conversation piece: Gruppo Parmacotto, Casella’s partner in this restaurant and its crosstown sibling, is the largest producer of cured meats in Italy. The company, based in Emilia-Romagna, is best known for its prosciutto, big haunches of which hang in a case near the front door.
By Jay Cheshes