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Woman in White

A sign of the apocalypse on the first block of Bleecker Street

The first block of Bleecker is becoming civilized. For decades it was home to the Yippie Party, and summer evenings you could get a contact high from the clouds of pot smoke issuing from the headquarters at 9 Bleecker Street. Gradually, upscale bars and restaurants squeezed in, but a feeling of anarchy still remains in the block's scarred and graffitied facades. As you enter Bianca at 5 Bleecker, a framed portrait of a woman in white confronts you; she's wearing a wedding dress that billows onto the floor as she sits with a mysterious expression. Does she regret her betrothal, or is she afraid a stink bomb is about to be lobbed in the door? As soon as we sat down in the relentlessly white room—lined with matching china plates, hung with teacups on little hooks, and lit with darling artichoke sconces, my companion exclaimed, "This is pretty—it looks like an English cottage." And then, a split second later: "This is a girl restaurant." And indeed, most of the tables were occupied by women.

Bianca is the daughter of Celeste, an Upper West Side matron I went apeshit over 18 months ago. Weird, I thought, that the Upper West Side, once completely devoid of food with any style, has now started exporting its restaurants to the East Village. Is it a sign of the apocalypse? Like her mother's, Bianca's bill of fare originates in Emilia Romagna. The signature dish shines like a beacon at the top of the menu: the puffy, pillow-shaped fritters known as gnocco ($8.50), served with either cured meats or a truffle-oil-sluiced stracchino ("tired") cheese, made from the evening milk of northern Italy's exhausted cows after they've dragged their asses down the mountain following a day of foraging. Go the route of meats, and you'll be delivered a platter containing a few slices each of prosciutto, coppa, mortadella, and, best of all, an irregular salami that I didn't recognize as being from around here. You wouldn't think light, warm fritters would go with damp, cool meats, but they do, providing the perfect counterpoint.

Though you might not associate deep-frying with Italian food, this preparation technique is especially popular in Emilia Romagna, and several choices reflect this. While there's no fried chicken, the seafood frito misto ($14.50) is one of the best entrées, a tumble of crisp shrimp, squid, and red mullet fillet atop a bonus haystack of shredded zucchini and eggplant strips, enough fried stuff for two to share. An even better seafood assortment comes with tagliolini ai frutti di mare ($11.50), a tangle of pasta ribbons ringed with clams and mussels and flinging off clouds of fragrant maritime steam. Still, the best pasta is not the one most often associated with the region, tagliatelle alla Bolognese. Rather, it's gramigna ($9.50), a pierced pasta like elbow macaroni, only longer and curlier, cooked al dente and deliciously sauced with crumbled fennel sausage and strips of ripe bell pepper.

Through the looking glass
photo: Shiho Fukada
Through the looking glass

Though an appetizer and a serving of pasta makes a fine meal, there are plenty of good secondi, too. Foremost is cotechino ($14), a plump oily sausage originating in Modena served sliced with mashed potatoes. My favorite dish of all, though, is an appetizer: fegatini ($7.50), chicken livers fried and deglazed with balsamic vinegar, then flung helter-skelter onto torn pieces of crusty bread. It's anarchy on a plate.

 
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