In the days when pasta came in three shapes and arugula was italicized, country Italian food entered my life in the guise of a quirky spot called Caffe de Alfredo. Mismatched tables, abundant greenery, brightly colored plates, and a menu that transported me well beyond the red sauce of my childhood were only a few steps away from my first Village apartment. It was there that I first sampled spaghetti alla puttanesca and enjoyed the tang of a simple salad of non-iceberg greens dressed with a vinaigrette heady with the acidulated honey of what I now know to be balsamic vinegar.
I’m not sure what Alfredo Viazzi would think of a Gotham overrun with Tuscan trattorias or of the sleek look of the multiroomed Massimo al Ponte Vecchio Ristorante-Bar. The light wood chairs contrast with burnished walls from which peer prints of icons like Sophia and Marcello, a far cry from the funky eclecticism of the Caffe. I do know that he’d have understood a welcome as warming as bagne calda. And having originally selected the place solely for its proximity to NYU, I was surprised to realize that Alfredo might indeed have eaten in the venerable mid-Village spot, where the chef boasts a 14-year tenure. He certainly would have appreciated the wait staff, which evinced a solicitous charm that cannot be taught. Most of all, he’d have loved the menu.
At first I suspected that the staggering list of specials must be a hype. On my return, however, I noted subtle differences in preparation and realized that these specials were special indeed, geared in part to seasonal items like boar and venison. At the same time, the breadth of the regular menu will service the pickiest diner and seduce the more adventurous with an array of items that made me think of my Saturday lunches at the Caffe. Suddenly I found I wanted pasta, and not only pasta, but the dishes I’d first enjoyed on West 4th Street many years ago.
At all too many moderately priced Italian places, one red sauce suits all. Here, I suspected, each one would reveal particularities and complexities. But first there were appetizers. A creamily consistent buffalo mozzarella with damp petals of roasted pepper ($9) serviced my guest, who scarfed down one taste and pronounced the appetizer as good as Da Silvano’s at one-third the price. I indulged in a special of dusky melted scamorza over a bed of arugula ($10). On a return trip, I fell into another arugula salad, this one topped with a crumble of goat cheese ($7). All were perfect setups for the pasta to follow. My friend couldn’t limit herself to one taste and requested a half-and-half plate of penne topped with smoked pecorino and sauced with fresh tomato and basil and fettuccine bathed in a lamb bolognese ($16). Having long embarrassed myself with indecision, I determined to follow her lead and choose once and for all between amatriciana and puttanesca ($17 as a pair). While she savored the penne and sang praises of the exceptionally meaty bolognese, I tasted and tested, evaluating the highly distinctive sauces. The fussilli puttanesca was grand, filled with big bits of black olives and capers and flavored with just enough brine. The spaghetti amatriciana, though, easily won the competition. Filled with large pieces of pancetta for pig and smoke, onions for pungency, and a hint of capsicum heat, it was intense, lavish, and densely flavored, vivid as both parts and whole. I had a solo bowl on my return ($12) and left thinking Alfredo would have loved it. I did.