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Mama Mia!

New Hearth flames up at theater-district locale

Anyone who perched at the counter munching the fried rabbit morsels served in a grease-stained paper sack at Hearth on Avenue A will be amazed at Insieme. While Hearth emphasized rustic central Italian cuisine and an informal approach to dining, Insieme mines northern Italian fare for its inspiration and offers a dining space that might be mistaken for a funeral parlor. Tables of somber mourners are dimly lit by gigantic flesh-colored lanterns. Windows hung with diaphanous curtains allow you to stare disconsolately at the tourist hordes wandering by, their gaze directed skyward. Look across the street at the Winter Garden Theater, its name gaily spelled out in blazing lights, and you'll learn that Mama Mia remains wildly popular. Such are the ambient pleasures of dining at Insieme.

Hearth and Insieme are projects of the same team of restaurateurs, Marco Canora and Paul Grieco. The former achieved notoriety as Craft's chef before going on to direct the kitchens at Hearth and Insieme. Evidence of Insieme's northern Italian bent is spelled out when the pre-amuse arrives on a bone-white plate. The three morsels cradled thereon include a tiny red radish, hollowed out with a Lilliputian tool and brimming with bagna cauda, the warm Piedmontese dip of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies. There's also a micro-cube of potato surmounted by the kind of tuna mayonnaise poured over thin-sliced veal in northern Italy. The actual amuse that follows is a savory cup of strachiatella, a Roman facsimile of Chinese egg-drop soup.

As you might have guessed, you'll pay more at Insieme than you did at Hearth. Appetizers set you back $12 to $19; primi are $16 for small portions, or $26 for entrée-size; while secondi top out at $36. These are very un–East Village prices, though Hearth was considered fiendishly expensive for Avenue A when it opened in 2003. The luxurious quality of the food and consistent brilliance of execution places Insieme among the best traditional Italian restaurants in town. It's also one of the best innovative Italians, too: The menu is divided into two competing halves, each of which offers a small handful of dishes for the three courses that make up the standard Italian meal. (Italians rarely bother with dessert.)

Smackdown: standard versus modern
Richard Mitchell
Smackdown: standard versus modern

While other critics have reviled the modern half of the menu, I like it as well as the traditional. In fact, two diners can create a culinary smackdown by selecting one dish from each side of the menu for each course, as a friend and I did one recent evening. Let the contest begin! From the antipasti, we matched the marinated red mullet (traditional) with raw fish crudo (innovative). The tart pickled mullet consisted of a pair of small skin-on filets, festively decorated with carrot streamers and parsley, while the crudo was much more complicated, entombed in two tiny plates and a bowl. Included were big-eye tuna sprinkled with micro-basil and bits of Gaeta olive; Wyeth oysters (Jamey or Andrew?) mingled with yellowtail and rutabaga marbles in a cold soup; and salmon napoleoned with something inscrutable and crunchy. The fussiness of presentation interfered with our enjoyment of the crudo, and the pickled mullet easily won.

Round two pitted pastas against each other—a wonderfully concentrated linguine à la vongole that featured tiny manila clams, both whole and coarsely puréed, bringing their bitter edge to bear on the slippery noodles (traditional); and a translation of salad caprese into pasta, involving two colors of tortellini swimming like jellyfish in sweet tomato water (innovative). The aquatic assemblage was mind-bogglingly good. Innovative won that round.

We both saw God when the lesso misto con condimenti tipico arrived. The only things we didn't much like on our visits to Insieme were a lasagna Bolognese with green noodles that reminded me of a Stouffer's entrée, and a pair of fresh sardine fillets that were overwhelmed by their stuffing of herbed crumbs. The wine list is a relatively democratic document for an upscale joint. The $26 Colli Senesi chianti is good, but if you lay out $36, you can get a splendid Dolcetto di Dogliani from Francesco Boschis that garnered two glasses (the second-highest honor) in the Slow Food wine guide. The only dessert too good to pass up—even on a full stomach—is bombolini: a pair of custard-filled donuts, served warm from the fat, accompanied by a dipping pot of semi-sweet chocolate. The menu doesn't say whether the dessert is innovative or traditional, but really, who cares?

 
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