Can the word “rustic” be applied to an establishment just steps south of Canal Street? To a townhouse squeezed between an Irish bar and a plumbing supply store, with a sidewalk café shaded by a lone tree, where Hudson River breezes mingle with the effluvia of trucks inching toward the Holland Tunnel? Yet there’s something of the country trattoria at Pepolino, and to prove it, lines of nostalgic expats chattering in Italian queue up on a Saturday evening in late August hoping to score a table.
You can get decent fried squid in any New York bar, but where else can you find calamari in zimino ($19)? This specialty of the Tuscan town Torre del Lago features thick squid rings wreathed in spinach and chard cooked down until they resemble something scraped off the bottom of a fishing boat—fusty and utterly delightful. There’s nothing like it anywhere else, and it took some pretty big cojones on the part of the jocular owners to present this dish to a local audience. Ditto pappa al pomodoro ($7). Though it’s described somewhat evasively as a soup, what arrives is a scarlet pudding gloriously heaped in the bowl. This is Florentine baby food, known to the English as pap: a paste prepared for small children out of crumbs of the city’s notoriously saltless bread. The flavor is tomatoey and sweet, which complements the powerful garlic charge that identifies what is actually a very adult dish—and once again, this is an oddity that even such brash Tuscan upstarts as Beppe and Arezzo would think twice about serving.
The proprietors cut their eyeteeth at Florence’s Il Cibreo, a restaurant revered—and occasionally detested—for its light and innovative take on Central Italian fare. One dish Pepolino cops from its progenitor is a basil-laced tomato flan served gratis at the start of the meal alongside the excellent Sullivan Street bread. Another is a soup of pureed yellow peppers that scored a hit when Pepolino opened two years ago, but is currently on sabbatical. Standing in is passato di zucca con amaretto ($7.50), a light pumpkin soup laced with amaretto. Playfully, a few crumbs of amaretti, almond macaroons, further tweak the taste.
In the Tuscan fashion, the pastas are perfectly cooked but rather plain. My favorites are garganelli ($14), short tubes like chicken aortas thickly mantled with cheese in a peppery herbal broth, and malfatti, spinach-and-cheese gnocchi pooled in butter and sage. The gnocchi are so weightless, they threaten to waft out of the bowl like tiny helium balloons. Departing from the usual Italian practice, Pepolino serves portions of primi and secondi too large to eat at the same meal unless you’ve skipped the antipasti. Challenging the calamari for supremacy among the secondi are the fish special of the day, often orata, which is splayed and roasted skin-side-down with fresh herbs, and polpettine ($21), four flat flavorful meatballs fashioned of veal and ricotta and moisturized with a mushroom demiglace.
At this jittery juncture, when a single siren still makes downtowners cringe, restaurants have been a solace and a refuge. A few days after the Trade Center disaster, I loitered on Canal Street’s north side, peering past lines of state troopers dressed like Canadian mounties at an empty and isolated Pepolino, wondering if I’d ever eat there again. What a relief when the doors finally swung open the following Friday, and I could return with a table of close friends. The staff had risen to the occasion: the atmosphere was festive and the food and service were better than ever. Thanks, Pepolino.