For years the storefront at the northeast corner of Washington and Christopher has hosted a series of foundering cafés–most notably Smilin’ Jack’s, whose facade was plastered with the face of the old comic-strip hero sporting aviator sunglasses and a leering grin. Malatesta–which means cracked in the head–is the latest occupant, and the frontage along both streets has been transformed into a series of French doors flung open in good weather to catch river breezes. Inside, patrons chat and drink red wine in a room decorated with Italian pulp-fiction covers. A flourishing restaurant on this seedy strip no longer seems crazy.
The menu offers simple Northern Italian fare with a focus on Emilia-Romagna. With its cities strung like beads along the Emilian Way just north of Tuscany, this region is home to Parmesan cheese, prosciutto di Parma, and balsamic vinegar, all lavishly deployed at Malatesta. One evening a delectable special of risotto con funghi ($13) was creamy with grana, a lighter, sweeter cousin of Parmesan, and underscored with white wine and mushrooms. Subsequent specials have been equally beguiling, including a salad of lightly poached calamari ($7) tossed with celery, tomato, parsley, capers, and olive oil, vivified with a few squeezes of lemon; and lobster ravioli ($14) in a light tomato sauce dotted with whole basil leaves, the occasional bits of shell enhancing its homespun appeal.
As befits a restaurant with its origins in the Italian breadbasket, baked goods excel. First there’s a focaccia drizzled with herbed oil and textured like pound cake, brought to the table with the menu and frequently replenished as the meal proceeds. More remarkable is piadina ($5), a regional flatbread that’s like a flour tortilla, only stiffer. It comes warm from the oven and folded over a choice of four fillings, of which the best is, unexpectedly, plain steamed spinach; with a glass of the fruity Sangiovese di Romagna ($24 a bottle), it would make a fine light supper. Another version mutes the bitterness of arugula with a mellow homemade cheese that’s like a cross between yogurt and feta.
Meat courses are generally forgettable, including a plate of four lamb chops ($14.50) grilled with rosemary and sided with mushy roast potatoes, and a chicken cutlet cooked like Wiener schnitzel garnished only with a small heap of lettuce and tomatoes. Better was a special of fresh tuna ($17) grilled with herbs in a gut-busting portion. But pastas are your best main course. Silky gnocchi ($11) is a particularly good bet, heaped with a weightless and aromatic sauce that highlights the taste of potatoes. So was a special of pappardelle laden with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. The only dud was penne all’ arabiata: hot and sweet, but lacking the expected tang of capers, olives, and anchovies.
Predictably, the foremost pasta is tagliatelle al ragú ($10), airy ribbons in a hopelessly rich sauce of ground meat, butter, and disintegrating vegetables, a combination closely associated with Bologna. This pasta, the lightness of which is due to its egg content, is said to have been invented by a cook named Zafiramo, who was inspired by the blond tresses of Lucrezia Borgia when she arrived in 1501 to wed the Duke of Este, hot off a murder spree that left her previous husband and several others poisoned. Contemporary historians blame her father (Pope Alexander VI) and brother for the trail of bodies, leaving us free to thank her for inspiring this amazing plate of food.