When it debuted in 1999, this outpost of a Jersey joint seemed absurdly expensive, but now the $60 prix fixe seems like a bargain. It includes three seriously large courses with many choices, and if you pick carefully, you can enjoy one of the best gloriously fussy meals in town. We were particularly pleased by the raviolo (a single big ravioli) crammed with ricotta and egg yolk, spilling liquid gold into its truffle sauce when you cut into it. Was the yolk injected by syringe, we wondered? But maybe it’s better to gird your loins for the second course by picking one of the composed salads. Our favorite main course is a zuppe de pesce with an incandescent saffron broth. Surprisingly, the desserts also profoundly kicked ass: Chocolate is featured in nearly half, including a tart so dark and dense you probably can’t finish it. Featuring an arched ceiling and stained-glass windows, the somber decor will remind you of a church, so bring your spiritual adviser and be prepared to pray—and pay. 165 Duane Street, 212.528.0400
When reputed Genovese capo Anthony “Tough Tony” Federici spotted hawks circling his pigeon coops, he climbed up on the roof of his Corona restaurant with a 20-gauge and opened fire. The cops busted him. And according to Mafia website ganglandnews.com, he spent a night in jail before being sprung with a $90 fine for hunting within city limits. “The hawks were murdering the defenseless pigeons . . . flying away with them in their mouths,” related Federici lawyer Mathew Mari.
Tough Tony’s restaurant—which he sometimes denies owning—called the Park Side (107-01 Corona Avenue, Corona, Queens, 718-271-9274) is located a stone’s throw from the Lemon Ice King of Corona, and in between is a boccie court where men in shirtsleeves play the game late into the warm summer evenings. The interior is suburban elegant, and the food generally fantastic, the kind of southern Italian fare that emphasizes veal, chicken, and seafood at the expense of pork. The penne alla vodka, sporting a thick, pink creamy sauce, is one of the best I’ve eaten, and the conch salad is fresh, lemony, and engagingly rubbery. We left after cups of weak espresso, very glad to have gone.
Esca is quite simply the best expensive Italian restaurant in New York. The centerpiece of the menu is crudo, the Venetian answer to sashimi—morsels of profoundly fresh seafood paired with odiferous olive oils and flavored with roughage like watermelon radishes, chives, and volcanic sea salt. Chef David Pasternack is a son of Montauk, and his menu includes plenty of crowd-pleasing pastas, grilled whole fish, and a brick-red Sicilian stew of fish and shellfish that gives bouillabaisse a run for its money. Were it in Venice or Rome or Naples or Genoa or Palermo, Esca would still qualify as one of the best restaurants. 402 West 43rd Street, 212.564.7272
Isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think, that one of the priciest Italian restaurants in Manhattan takes its inspiration from one of Italy’s poorest regions—Puglia, the heel of the boot? The restaurant is named for the whitewashed beehive houses of Bari, and the menu is dotted with such rustic staples as duck, rabbit, dandelion greens, black chickpeas, Puglian honey and cheese, and wild fennel. The latter appears in powdered form crusting two perfectly roasted boar chops, but even better is the cudgel-sized veal chop that seems to be the choice of half the dining room. Pastas, too, are beyond the pale for most Italian restaurants, including the Sardinian dumplings called malloreddus and ear-shaped orecchiette heaped with rabbit ragu. I Trulli is the center of an empire that includes an adjacent wine bar and a liquor store, the proximity of which guarantees that the markup on wines is more modest than usual. 122 East 27th Street, 212.481.7372