"This doesn't look like an Italian restaurant," my companion noted as I hunkered down on the red, wall-hugging banquette which ran the entire length of the L-shaped room and she took the modernistic plastic chair opposite me. The wall was painted with wildly colored rectangles, making it feel like we were dining in an Ikea. Not bad, really, but the best feature is a massive array of wine bottles at the end of the room; only their caps can be seen, like a military phalanx preparing for an endless battle against thirst. Nearly all are from Emilia-Romagna, including 14 Lambruscoslight fizzy reds that run from very dry to very sweet and go particularly well with heavy food.
We were paying our first visit to the relocated Via Emilia, a beloved Flatiron institution notable for its relatively cheap prices and its commitment to the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna. Extending from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic, this region is both the breadbasket and the industrial heart of northern Italy, home to more signature food products than any other, most notably Parmesan, prosciutto, and balsamic vinegarall of which the restaurant makes lavish use of. Named after an ancient Roman road, Via Emilia now styles itself a "Ristorante Modenese," after the city of Modena, where real aged balsamic vinegar originates (as distinct from the barely aged junk found in most restaurants).
In one stunning appetizer, 25-year-old balsamic is dribbled over little chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano mounted on slices of green pear, looking like a miniature chocolate-covered Alpine landscape ($15). You've never tasted anything so rich. Another regional starter is prosciutto served with a steaming basket of gnoccho. Not to be confused with gnocchi, gnoccho are fritters resembling flaky inflated pillowcases, the perfect accompaniment to the cool slices of fat-rimmed prosciutto. Make little sandwiches. Another not-to-be-missed starter is the boiled cotechino sausage (Modena's favorite, $8), stout sweating rounds served with a mess of white beans and a piquant green salsa something like Argentine chimichurri.
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The menu offers four sections (Antipasti, Zuppe, Paste, and Secondi Piatti), and most of the action is in the first and third. An exception is the region's favorite soup, tortellini in brodo ($8.50), little pasta nuggets shaped like Venus' navel stuffed with parmesan, prosciutto, and pork, deposited in a chicken stock that owes a profound debt to the bouillon cube. The most famous pasta of the region, known to us as spaghetti Bolognese and to them as tagliatelle al ragu, reflecting a French origin, is a bit of a disappointment here, not buttery or vegetably enough. Choose instead one of the wonderful tortelloni, which are like tortellini inflated with a bicycle pump. One features a ricotta and spinach filling and a tomato sauce ($13), while another is stuffed with chicken and mushrooms and arrives doused with truffle oil, which sends the pasta into Venusian orbit.
The pastas are so voluminous, you could skip the secondi entirely. Reaching across the border to the north, the best is a pair of turkey breast slices done up to resemble veal cutlet Milanese, heaped with diced tomato and baby arugula glossed with a light vinaigrette. While the Thanksgiving bird is serviceable in this deep-fried context, one can't help but think of what the cutlet would probably be made of were it served in Emilia-Romagna: cavallo or asino (horse or ass).
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