Sitting inconspicuously on a residential, tree-lined block facing Tompkins Square Park, Pierlugi Palazzo’s rustic, Northern Italian charmer recalls an era many have only heard of: a time before big-ticket toques conquered the East Village and the hood was teeming with affordable, family-owned Italian trattorias. It’s endearing then that the five-year-old Gnocco offers somewhat reasonable prices—heaping plates of pasta run around $17, pizza pies start at $15—for its hearty fare, which is served across a homey, indoor-outdoor space lined with romantic candles and potted greenery.
It goes without saying that if you name your restaurant after a single dish, it needs to be done exceptionally well. To that end, Gnocco achieves its purpose: the beignet-like Modenese pastry made of fried pizza dough ($13.50) arrives with a large spread of different Italian meats (salty prosciutto, lusty capicola), which can be wrapped around or stuffed inside the steamy pockets for an instantly addictive, hot-meets-cold pairing. Its more familiar cousin pizza fares similarly well, an ideal option for fans of the thin crusted, generously-sauced style in varieties ranging from comfort-zone margherita ($14.50) to the standout bresaola-and-arugula number ($19.95).
For larger plates, skip pricy-yet-lackluster entrees and opt for more bang-for-your-buck pastas, which recently included a summer special of creamy and perfectly al dente tagliolini blanketed in freshly shaved black truffles ($23.95). For a more boisterously-flavored option, try a homespun spaghetti alla chitarra twirling plump shrimp with clams in a fragrant basil pesto ($17.95).
Beyond the saucey grub, a solid Italian wine list is offered, and a full bar is on-hand to stir and shake simple cocktails (there’s no drink list). Sweet offerings, like a crowd-pleasing tiramisu served in a glass ($9) and a more inventive nutella-and-ricotta calzone ($14.95), make for playful and amusing ways to cap off the meal. Far less amusing, however, was the service on a recent night, thanks to an out-of-line waiter who, without warning, began venting to us about a party earlier that night and proceeded to sit down right at our table while waiting for us to sign our bill (yes, this actually happened).
A second visit was far less eventful (read: far more enjoyable), re-affirming age-old wisdom that you can’t let one bad experience sour an otherwise deliciously savory note. Service gaffs aside, Gnocco makes for solid Italian dining in today's East Village, one where it may soon become easier to find rainbow bagels and ramen burgers than an affordable, soul-warming bowl of pasta.