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Lately, we've seen a spate of restaurants seeking to imitate Roman trattorias. Obika re-created a famous mozzarella-themed wine bar in the soaring lobby of Midtown's IBM building, while Quinto Quarto built out a small storefront in the West Village, getting the rustic look just right and offering authentic Roman pastas. Now along comes Trattoria Cinque ("Bistro Five"), invading a rambling space on Tribeca's Greenwich Street. The 250-seat restaurant features two small outdoor seating areas, a front-of-the-house dining room, a barroom with seating on stools and at tables, a humongous dining room that parallels the bar, and a pair of glassed-in private dining rooms, one at the rear of the main floor, the other downstairs with the bathrooms. As the website brags: "The dining room mimics a 1960s trattoria"—though "mimic" is a loaded word, isn't it?
"This lighting is great, if only the bulbs were aimed better," said a friend who works as a lighting designer. Indeed, a wealth of overhead fixtures and spots that stream upward through red bottles of Campari set the tone for the main room, which is filled with long blond-wood tables surrounded by red chairs, as if waiting for the hordes to arrive. Trattoria Cinque is clearly a project that hit the drawing boards before the economic downturn, when eager restaurateurs decided that bigger was better when it came to minting money. The businessman in this case is Russell Bellanca, who operates two Alfredo of Rome restaurants, one in Rome and the other in Rockefeller Center. Both are aimed at tourists and reportedly not very good.
Trattoria Cinque has a gimmick, which is reflected in its name: Every menu category—including apps, pastas, main courses, red wines, white wines, digestifs, and desserts—offers precisely five choices. When our first appetizer arrived, it demonstrated another gimmick: gigantic servings, making the prices on the menu seem more pleasant after the food appears. The gorgonzola and pear pizza ($12) sails in on a wooden plank, a three-foot oval that's enough to satisfy three or four diners. Luckily, the crust turns out to be wafer-thin, and the blue cheese not so pungent as to be revolting. Similarly voluminous is a fritto misto ($14) featuring shrimp, artichokes, and squid. Though expertly fried, the legions of squid vastly outnumber the other foot soldiers. Even though you'll crave more fried artichoke (a favorite dish of Rome's Jewish quarter), you can't argue with quantity.
Both pastas and main courses are of varying quality, so to fully enjoy a meal at Trattoria Cinque, you should explore both options, sharing one pasta and one entrée between every two diners as separate courses. Among pastas, the spaghetti carbonara ($16) proves superb, though it's made with paccheri (a short tubular pasta) instead of spaghetti. This recipe was invented at the conclusion of World War II, when American doughboys streamed into a food-strapped Rome bearing eggs and American bacon. Out of pride, perhaps, the restaurant uses Italian pancetta rather than its streaky and smoked Yankee counterpart. The Lombardy spinach-and-ricotta dumplings called malfatti ("badly formed") are tasty, but beware the rabbit ravioli: The wrapper is too thick, and the diced orange squash heaped on top makes for a yawn-worthy sauce.
While it's true that the menu of a typical Roman trattoria often borrows recipes from other regions of the country, mainly to the north, it often seems as if Trattoria Cinque isn't trying hard enough to be Roman. Thus the mammoth braised rib ($20)—good and beefy on its bed of creamy polenta—doesn't taste remotely Roman, or even slightly Italian. The timballo of baked eggplant and parmigiana is more recognizably Italian-American than Roman, hence entirely out of its element here; it might better be deposited on a hero roll. It's the same story with the meat-bearing baked lasagna; you can get a superior version at any Italian-American restaurant in town. The best main course, and one that delighted the diners at my table, was the pollo arrosto con pepperoni ($17), a half-chicken stewed with peppers, pancetta, and black olives. Once again, there's a striking resemblance to an Italian-American standard, this time chicken cacciatore.
A glassed-in cellar occupies one wall of the dining room, suggesting that a more ambitious wine program must have once been contemplated. The current meager list presents some decent values, though, with a smooth Chianti at $36 and a rough-hewn Nero d'Avola at $30. Unfortunately, the restaurant delivers the red wines as warm as a baby bottle, making us wonder: Is it too costly to keep that cellar a few degrees cooler?
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at villagevoice.com/forkintheroad