Tastes Like Headcheese to Me
Silky as a hundred-dollar blouse, ruddy as a stevedore's face in a high wind, the prosciutto di Parma ($9) swirls around the plate, mocking a pair of dumpy roast figs slouched like cartoon characters in the middle. You've never tasted ham this good, or seen it shaved so thin. It's a tribute to the ancient hand-crank slicer that crouches in the corner at Lupa, a new Italian trattoria with hereditary links to Babbo, Po, Frico, Becco, and 'ino. (Hey, what happened to Groucho and Zeppo?) The slicer is loosed on a slew of tangy cheeses and funky air-cured meats like cacciatorini ($7), a fine-grained hunters' salami deliciously paired with a handful of baby artichokes glossed with a warm sauce of olive oil, anchovy, and lemon called bagna cauda ("hot bath").
In a city gone crazy for the rustic pleasures of Tuscan food, and still carrying a torch for Neapolitan, Lupa adjusts the geographic focus to Rome, delivering bold flavors like fennel, lemon peel, mint, anchovy, raisin, and, of course, garlic. Among the Roman offerings are an unforgettable potatoless gnocchi ($11), kneaded with ricotta into puffy knuckles that punch through a stout sauce of ground fennel sausage; and a fettuccine Alfredo profound in its buttery and cheesy simplicity. Patrician, too, is an oxtail alla vaccinara ("butcher's style") sloughing handsome quantities of meat and fat into a sweet-and-sour gravy, finalized with a spray of toasted pignoli. And when you order pollo alla diavolo ($13), don't expect it to come Florentine style, smeared with a paste of onions, garlic, and parsley. Instead, Lupa paves its crisp-skinned version with crushed black peppercorns, like some killer variation on Southern fried chicken.
But Lupa doesn't confine itself to one region or one set of culinary ideas. In addition to the Piedmontese bagna cauda, and a panzanella leaning toward Tuscany, there's a severely delicious salad of cracked wheat ($8)-minted, chived, and whomped with citrus-cured sardines-inspired by Sicilian cooking at its most North African. Other dishes are pure invention, like the playfully named Nero's tagliarini ($12), matching midnight ribbons of squid-ink pasta with swatches of squid braised to brownness, reversing the usual barely cooked treatment. The light sauce is a struggle between tart and salty flavors, from which a few capers emerge as counterpoint.
In a place that takes so many chances, there are bound to be a few dishes that fall on their faces. The venerable Roman saltimbocca-a veal cutlet stuffed with ham and mantled with toasted cheese-is too dry, and the thin-slicing technique here renders the cooked prosciutto powerless; I also didn't dig the mild house-cured cod, inserted between layers of fresh and caramelized fennel. Conventional salt cod would have been better. But most experiments work amazingly well, and an enthusiastic staff helps put the menu across. The intriguing wine list is composed entirely of Italians from 20 regions, with several varieties available in caraffinas, which are about a third of a bottle, for $7 to $15.
One particular appetizer shows Lupa at its most playful. Testa di polipo ($8) melds baby octopus heads into a submarine headcheese, stuck together with natural octopus crazy glue. The black-and-white slices make a beautiful picture on the plate, but for most of us they taste a little too much like, well, headcheese.
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