In day eight of The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio describes a town called Bengodi (“enjoyment”). Perched beside a mountain of grated Parmesan, the town is a foodie paradise, where white wine sparkles in the streams and grapevines are tied up with sausages. The town’s cooks perch atop the mountain fashioning makroun, medieval macaroni, which are boiled in capon broth, then rolled down the hill—picking up cheese along the way—into the eager citizens’ mouths.
Chef Cesare Casella’s tribute to Boccaccio is bengodi ($11), his name for delicious hand-fashioned pasta disks that glint in a broth of Parmesan and black pepper like coins in the bottom of a mossy puddle. This sort of culinary playfulness is a hallmark of Maremma, his new restaurant on West 10th, named after the Tuscan district of rolling grasslands that descend to the sea southwest of Siena. Maremma is ranch country, populated by the butteri, Italian cowboys who wear broad-brimmed hats, tend white cattle, and ride horses. In 1905, when William Cody supposedly brought his Wild West Show to Rome and held a rodeo in the Piazza del Popolo, the butteri beat the pants off of his American cowboys.
Growing up in the Tuscan village of Lucca, Casella was the kind of kid who read Zane Grey novels under the bedcovers with a flashlight and went to see spaghetti westerns. His admiration for the Wild West led him to invent Tuscan cowboy cooking at Beppe, Maremma’s older sibling, exemplified by Tuscan cowboy ribs. Clotted with barbecue sauce, they failed to excite me there. On 10th Street, however, the ribs ($11) are superb, cooked to tenderness but not disintegration and sided with stone-ground grits. The dish is called “earn your spurs,” on a menu that can’t stop cracking Western jokes.
Crisp fried shards of veal testicle, referred to by the Old West euphemism of Rocky Mountain oysters, come sided with buttermilk dressing. Indeed, balls could be the new beef cheeks. Described as “campfire seafood stew,” caldaro ($24) is really a bouillabaisse, with clams, mussels, fish, and baby octopuses incarnadined with ground red chiles instead of saffron. The Tuscan chili isn’t really Tuscan, but it is really good, flavored with bacon and topped with green onions. There are a few beans in it—a no-no in the Lone Star State—but beans are a Casella obsession, so much so that he established a company called Republic of Beans to import types he couldn’t find here. The result is antipasto del buttero ($10), a selection of four contrasting warm and cool bean salads, in which each well-cooked bean shines like a jewel.
Not everything works on what must be one of the city’s wackiest menus. Among appetizers find sloppy giuseppe ($11), like a regular sloppy joe, except the meager serving is deposited on slices of French bread instead of a hamburger bun. And “pony express”—spaghetti topped with pancetta and tuna—is unassertively flavored, so that you might do better making something like it at home. Much better, pasta-wise, is a dish that also serves as Cody’s second comeuppance. The dish called Wild Bill Cody ($17) owes nothing to the Wild West and everything to Tuscany: a plate of pappardelle with wild-boar sauce, a reverent re-creation of a purely Italian standard. Except, of course, that Casella throws in some chocolate. Ride ’em cowboy!