Celeste is just what the Upper West Side was waiting for—a real East Village-style trattoria serving modern Italian food at reasonable prices, like Frank’s, Max’s, and countless other spots a stone’s throw from Tompkins Square. Been there a couple of times already with foursomes, last night including a pair of teenagers who were a little disappointed when they didn’t get wine glasses. The wine list, by the way, is filled with stuff you’d like—exclusively Italian, and arranged geographically from north to south. Lots of central Italian things we’ve encountered before in Tuscany and Umbria, including a Polizano Rosso di Montepulciano that brought that town’s weird cathedral at the bottom of the hill immediately to mind, and, especially, a ’97 Morellino di Scansano from a producer I didn’t recognize that had that pronounced wet-diaper flavor, as you so vividly put it. Both about $25.
The food was generally right on, especially the pizzas that come flying out of a wood-burning oven that’s tiled in the palest blue. A thermometer on the front lets you read the temperature (in this case, 711 degrees) as you’re heading toward the bathroom. Best pizza was a quattro stagione in which each right-angled wedge was heaped with one perfect ingredient: sliced porcinis, shaved artichokes, mozzarella, and a thickish slice of prosciutto. Our favorite homemade pastas (attributed on the menu, rather oddly, to one Giancarlo Quadalti) were a triangular spinach-and-ricotta ravioli—big, floppy, and lightly seasoned with sage butter; and a tagliatelle with shrimp, cabbage, and pecorino. The cabbage sweetened the whole mess. Dry pastas, which went unattributed, were not nearly as interesting. Secondi like sea bream stewed in tomato sauce with Gaeta olives and potatoes and a fried chicken cutlet paved with crushed nuts paled in comparison to the oddball starters, which came in several categories, reminding me of Trattoria Paolina on Avenue B. Couldn’t resist “I Fritti” (sounds like a good title for a confessional autobiography), which contained all sorts of fried things. But the one that really made me swoon was sautéed chicken livers on crusty bread, hosed with reduced balsamic.
Still, the thing that really sets this place apart is the all-Italian cheese plate, which isn’t on the menu, though the hunks sit on a counter for all to see. The cheese dude is a real oddball, and when you order the plate (it comes in $10, $20, and $30 denominations), he hustles over to the table beaming. It was so good we ordered it twice, before and after the meal. He rattled off the names so quickly, each with an anecdote, that I missed half of them. One cheese specimen came wrapped in juniper ash, another had been cured with saffron, while a third had been, according to him, dropped into a sterile pit and aged 100 days. “And I aged it for another month,” he added. The plates come sided with little smears of flavored honeys and homemade preserves (green tomato, fig, and barbera grape skins were the three jams that I remember). The dude also boasted that he’d made the pecorino himself from milk he buys in Umbria. “It’s a little too dry,” he harrumphed.
You should have seen Tracy’s boyfriend John attacking the cheese. I’ve never seen anyone enjoy a piece of green-veined gorgonzola so much.