True Grits

Sandwiched tightly between Indian restaurants just off 6th Street, La Madrastra is difficult to spot. Though the name means "stepmother" in Spanish, it also easily yields up "Madras." The food, too, sometimes makes sly reference to the restaurant's location. A recent special of sirloin steak wrapped in prosciutto and grilled ($16)—not a bad idea—came sided with what looked like green beans. Except that the glistening beans were half the width and twice the length of normal green beans, leading to a mild sensation of vertigo. Turns out they were Indian drumsticks, a vegetable that tastes more like asparagus.

La Madrastra is the latest in an Italian restaurant renaissance that's been brewing in the East Village for nearly a decade. While pricey uptown Italians grab the spotlight, micro cafés with simple names like Max and Frank have flourished south of 14th Street, winning over nabies with simple, cheap, and often innovative food. Founded in most cases by Italian immigrants, these places effortlessly blend modern fare from several regions with Neapolitan-American standards. La Madrastra has a narrow interior that mixes art and romance with antique beveled mirrors, miniature shaded lanterns that exude a warm orange glow, and a couple of alarming paintings (someone's stepmom?) that will remind you of Cruella DeVil.

As with the other postage-stamp Italians in the neighborhood, the menu is limited to what can be well produced from a kitchen not much larger than the one in your apartment. Unfussy starters include a deliriously good plate of simple bresaola ($8), thin sliced beef that's been cured like ham. It arrives abundantly fanned on the plate and slicked with olive oil. Carrying on the lots-for-little theme, crostini ($6) are not the usual tiny toasts, but lumberjack slabs of bread soaked in butter and topped with a saline spread of crushed anchovies. Better yet are the appetizers featured on the specials menu, which on a recent occasion included thick and tender stalks of asparagus wrapped in good prosciutto, a pile of five grilled sardines robed in sea salt that could qualify as an entrée, and an octopus salad ($7) that I would walk 10 miles to eat.

As is usually the case with New York's Italian restaurants, the "secondi" fall short of the appetizers and pastas. Sirloin with green peppercorn sauce ($15) seems stolen from one of the nearby French bistros, while sliced duck breast with strawberry sauce was just plain bad. Much better were an alien invasion of baby calamari pods stuffed with polenta and large shrimp ($11)—you'll have to order it to see how it's done—and a heap of four bulging lamb chops grilled with sage leaves and served swimming in pan juices. Yum!

Congeniality awaits unfussy food at Salvo Zapparata’s (third from left) La Madrastra.
photo: Andrew Portnoy
Congeniality awaits unfussy food at Salvo Zapparata’s (third from left) La Madrastra.

Details

La Madrastra
93-95 First Avenue, 212-475-6620. Open Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight.
No credit cards. Wheelchair accessible with assistance.

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Priced around $10, pastas strike a traditional note. The spaghetti puttanesca is here offered in a more powerful version than you'll find elsewhere, and the combined salinity of the capers and olives nearly overwhelms the dish. Salt freaks will love it. Amplified to better effect is spaghetti and meatballs, that refuge of millions of American kids. The tomato sauce has a memorably tart edge, and the smallish balls are doled out with a more generous hand than in the school lunch line. Best pasta award goes to agnolotti burro ed erbe, ricotta-stuffed half-moons in a simple sauce of clarified butter and fresh herbs, which caused a friend who hails from a small town in Georgia to moan in delight. She also loved a massive plate of polenta flowing with thick gorgonzola sauce ($6). "It's as good as cheese grits," she declared.

 
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