Original Sin

One of the few things that I remember from the mists of my primary education is the painful conjugating of the Latin verbs we droned aloud. I thought I'd long forgotten them all until I received a press kit and was amazed to find, as I glanced at the logo, that I recognized the form and the word. Pecco, peccare, peccavi, peccatum: to sin. I was hooked. A look at the menu indicated that the Latin connection extended far off the Appian Way to include tastes from such outposts of the Roman empire as Tunisia and Morocco. And then at the door, I was struck by a sense of the familiar, as though encountering a friend with a good face-lift: Peccavi occupies the site of an old lunchtime haunt of mine, La Colombe d'Or. But where once the colorful block prints of Souleiado reigned supreme, now twisted wire candelabra and brocades fit for a Medici transform the Provençal mas into an Italianate palazzo.

With its offerings from both sides of what the Romans arrogantly referred to as mare nostrum(our sea), the menu was as transformed as the surroundings, and soon it became clear that this sin's food is original. Appetites are whetted with small plates like lightly battered rounds of tender calamari served with the surprise of an aioli flavor-zapped with hot Tunisian harissa ($7), or a pair of sweet char-grilled sardines splayed atop a bed of shaved fennel, red onion, and sweet-pepper escabeche sauce that melded the fare of Spain's beaches with Italy's favorite root ($7), or cornmeal-coated zucchini blossoms stuffed with tart cheese ($7). More traditional offerings included salads like the field greens served with slightly salty yellow beets and topped with a goat cheese croustade ($7). One auspicious evening, I began with a half-portion of the risotto du jour, pungent with wild mushrooms and shreds of duck confit and laced with a quintessence of pinot noir ($10).

Inside this door, an Italianate palazzo explores the tastes of an empire.
photo: Cary Conover
Inside this door, an Italianate palazzo explores the tastes of an empire.

Details

Peccavi
134 East 26th Street, 212-889-9620.
Open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m, Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m.
Major credit cards.
Limited wheelchair access (two steps down into restaurant).

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If you can manage to soldier through the well-conceived and heartily sized starters, mains are just as inventive. On one occasion, my friend sampled a roasted sea bass flavored with Algerian spices enhanced with the fresh crispness of preserved lemons and the bite of olives and served on a bed of couscous that soaked up all of the juices ($19). It was deliciously savory, but light compared to the Australian lamb I scarfed down, relishing how its chewy pinkness was juxtaposed against the slick slurry of minced mint and cilantro that constituted its innovative pesto and the tomato jam that accompanied it ($24). Sides like broccoli rabe and sautéed spinach are pleasantly garlicky and deceptively light. The entrées are so huge that a shared one and a pair of appetizers will serve the moderately hungry just fine. Two mains will have you waddling home, as we did, with a shopping bag full of goodies. That would be a shame, because you might have to skip the sumptuous basmati rice pudding, lightly perfumed with coriander and saffron and topped with a crisp of pistachio brittle ($7)—the simply wicked ending to a truly sinful meal.

 
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