Bacaro and dell'anima

Two new openings suggest downtown is Italian.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Bacaro, 136 Division St between Ludlow and Orchard Sts (212-941-5060). Subway: F to East Broadway. Tue–Sun 6pm–midnight. Average main course: $15.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5

dell’anima, 38 Eighth Ave at Jane St (212-366-6633). Subway: A, C, E to 14th St; L to Eighth Ave. Daily 6pm–2am. Average main course: $22.

Panna cotta with stewed cherries at Bacaro

Photograph: Jeff Gurwin

Bacaro and dell’anima were born almost simultaneously last month, in Chinatown and the West Village, respectively, and this below 14th Street Italian duo has demonstrated strong fraternal tendencies. Both smallish spots feature well-pedigreed chefs (Peasant’s formidable Frank DeCarlo at Bacaro, and Le Bernardin/Del Posto alum Gabriel Thompson at dell’anima) who pair the patchy meals with unusually strong, concise and reasonable Italian-only wine lists (dell’anima co-owner Joe Campanale was a Babbo sommelier, while Bacaro deserves a toast just for the excellent $45 barolo).

The twins look good, too. Bacaro rates among the year’s most beautiful new restaurants despite its desolate block, making it a stylish Italian counterpoint to the neighborhood’s weathered eateries. Blown-glass chandeliers, a marble bar and tables are situated under a beamed ceiling on the drafty upper floor. The dark basement resembles medieval catacombs, with tables, appointed with dripping candles and delicate glasswear, tucked into shadowy alcoves. The bustling, modern dell’anima, meanwhile, showcases two granite bars, one for drinks and one abutting the open kitchen, where Thompson throws dishes onto the counter, Momofuku-style.

Unfortunately, the pair also shares sloppy service. Dell’anima’s issue is pacing—an hour can go by without a dish, and then courses power out like machine-gun fire. Bacaro, meanwhile, makes getting seated a Darwinian adventure, with no reservations and no hostess. Visitors apparently must try their luck by giving their names to a waiter on the top or bottom floor­—too bad if tables open up on the level you didn’t pick, something I figured out when I was one hour into a promised 15-minute wait.

Let the sibling rivalry begin with food, which Bacaro does better, and quite reasonably, pricewise. Modeled after a Venetian working-class wine bar, Bacaro’s menu doesn’t bother to differentiate between appetizers and entrées, though portions vary dramatically, from spicy marble-size deep-fried meatballs, served in the kind of dainty bowl used for olive pits, to a giant plate layered with white fagioli beans under a bread-crumb–dusted duck leg, a hearty yet forgettable deconstructed cassoulet.

Several dishes stand out: The addictively salty fritto misto, while definitely fritto, is hardly misto: Happily, the giant serving was dominated by toothsome octopus. The restaurant’s strengths can also be witnessed in the gnocchi, the size and consistency of marshmallows, nestled in a velvety mushroom brown-butter sauce.

Other dishes, such as the gooey white lasagna rendered bitter by too much radicchio, suggest that Bacaro is a step down from DeCarlo’s other restaurant.

Bruschette with assorted toppings at dell’anima

Photograph: Jeff Gurwin

Dell’anima, meanwhile, separates the menu into five courses, which may explain the small kitchen’s pacing challenge. The first is simple enough: do-it-yourself bruschette, i.e., toasted bread and up to five toppings, including a spicy star-anise–laced mostarda with plump sultana raisins.

Leave room, however, for Thompson’s forte: pasta. His thin, immaculate tagliatelle ribbons supported a moderate dose of textbook bolognese ragù; the smell of fontina perfumes the al dente pizzoccheri, and sage provides bite. An inventive squid-ink linguine was served with a briny calamari ragù, which carried the satisfying, fish-stock flavor of a great bouillabaisse.

Other dishes proved problematic. Capers overwhelmed a sweetbread starter, served over a parsley root puree so thin that it was basically a sauce. A fishy skin rendered a striped bass entrée nearly inedible, and the pressed and seared chicken al diavalo suffered from a paprika overdose.

The story of the Italian pair reunites with dessert: They served two of the best panna cottas I’ve ever had. Bacaro’s version, mildly sweet and topped with stewed cherries, was velvety and puddinglike (and made entirely of heavy cream). Dell’anima’s equally luxurious rendition carried floral accents thanks to hibiscus, pear and a fennel marmalade. Two winning dishes that hint at one final common trait: untapped potential.