One of my fondest memories of Italy is lounging on a sunny hillside terrace at La Bellaria, an agriturismo (farm serving meals) south of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna. All around us snaked downward-sloping rows of grapevinesthe ones that produce the red and slightly fizzy wines the locals lovewhile the River Trebbia meandered glimmering in the distance. First course was a rustic assortment of air-cured pork products: prosciutto, the local dried salami, a round ham made with neck meat called coppa, and lardo, pure pork fat rimmed with a strip of meat just wide enough to enable you to locate the slice when it's served on a white plate. But what really set this appetizer apart was the finger-shaped fritters alongside, the perfect complement to the earthy coolness of the meat. Nothing beat a strip of lardo melting around a warm fritter.
Imagine my delight at finding a similar appetizer on the menu at Via Emilia, a new Flatiron district spot named after the ancient Roman road that bisects the region, connecting some of Italy's most celebrated food destinations, among them Bologna, Reggio, Parma, and Modena. Via Emilia's version of pig and fritter, called gnocco fritto ($6.50), comprises a modest number of slices of great pepper-dotted salami, good coppa richly veined with fat, spongy and garlicky mortadella, and a prosciutto that varied in quality on several visits and generally left me nonplussed. The fritters, however, were magnificent: gigantic trapezoidal pillows that released steam clouds when torn open. But, alas, no lardo.
Another appetizer that achieved authenticity and magnificence was tortellini in brodo ($6). A blurb at the top of the menu attributes their creation to a perv in a country inn peeping through a keyhole at a woman as she undressed. Her belly button inspired him to concoct the pasta. (Perhaps he also invented the cream sauce often served therewith at the same time.) Via Emilia's version looks more like miniature meat-stuffed fedoras, and the delicate pasta wrapper is almost diaphanous, unlike the rubbery tortellini you dredge from the freezer case. The rich chicken broth the pasta floats in comes alive when the waiter spoons on the freshly grated parmesan. It's one hell of a dish.
Other appetizers don't reach these heights. The insalata mista suffered from a boring balsamic-dominated dressing; grilled calamari were just that and no more; pasta e fagioli, a semi-permanent special, was bland and undistinguished. Pride of place on the pasta menu is afforded tortelloni, similar in shape but larger than tortellini. The two vegetarian versions are the best, including tortelloni di zucca ($11), bulging with a nutmeg-accented pumpkin puree and wallowing in a butter-and-sage sauce that made a diner at our table nearly swoon with pleasure. Like the name says, tortelloni di spinaci are filled with spinach, but there's plenty of mellow cheese as well. The secondi are generally skippable, though the herb-crusted pork chop (braciolona di maiale, $12.50), a good two fingers thick, is as distinguished an example of that cut as I've run across in a while. In contrast, the veal medallions smothered in cheese and diced asparagus provoked only yawns.
Further plaudits are due the wine list. When food critics say restaurants have "cheap" and "affordable" wines, they're usually lying. This list is truly inexpensive, with many decent choices between $14 and $24. Bravely, it features a cadre of Lambruscos, foremost among the weak and fizzy reds mentioned above. While the sweet versions are to be eschewed, the Modenese Lambrusco di Sorbara, dry and light and only slightly carbonated, is perfectly suited to the rich foods of Emilia-Romagna. Maybe the locals were right.
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