First, there was Beppe. Done up like an Italian villa, it represented chef Cesare Casella’s return to his roots. He’d grown up outside Lucca, Italy, where his parents owned a trattoria, and Beppe’s menu was straight-up Tuscan. After notable culinary and commercial success, he moved on to Maremma, which occupied a former piano bar in the West Village. Menu-wise, Casella indulged his penchant for “Tuscan cowboy cooking,” fusing central Italian cuisine with American ranch fare and justifying it by noting that southwestern Tuscany actually harbors cowboys who ride horses and herd cattle.
Maremma subsided slowly into the dining landscape and finally closed, never quite attracting the following it needed. Casella’s latest adventure is Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto, whose name refers to a cold-cuts concern based in Parma that specializes in cooked hams. But the place is more than a simple salumeria—Casella’s quirky cooking has been grafted onto the salami store in a way that might delight dadaists.
A refrigerated case just inside the front door bulges with conventional Italian charcuterie. The majority is supplied by Parmacotto, which seems like the Boar’s Head of Italy. There are prosciuttos from San Daniele and Parma and a righteous imported mortadella in the large-boar Bologna style. We found the prosciutto grigliata best of all, like a fine-grained Virginia ham flavored with rosemary. But while Parmacotto’s products are wholesome and tasty, they’re also a bit boring if you’re used to the quirky, local cured meats found throughout Italy.
Paradoxically, then, seek out the charcuterie made here in America, including the amazing guanciale (cured pig jowl) from our own Salumeria Biellese (378 Eighth Avenue), which reeks of Chelsea terroir, or the oddly shaped sausage from California that is confusingly called salami Toscano. The cacciatorini—a miniature Italian-American salami—is also great, though the menu doesn’t say where it’s made. Charcuterie costs $3 to $5.50 for a tasting of three slices.
There is a small selection of excellent cheeses, of which I particularly liked amalattea ($5), a soft goat cheese that Casella dribbles with citrus oil. The case also contains cold composed dishes for carryout, including a seven-bean salad, bright green globes of pressed greens, and an acidic salad of pickled mackerel, peppers, and onions, which you might find in any Tuscan trattoria.
Seating is along a mirrored wall (the ceiling’s mirrored, too!) and at a number of narrow counters fitted at random places, including one that faces the deli case, causing you to cringe among people jostling for carryout. Even with this extraordinary versatility, total seating is limited to 30 or so. Extending across the wall and ceiling is a 3-D terra-cotta map of Italy made up entirely of colorless foods—except for the area around Parma, which bulges with pink cold cuts. (While this monster might do a franchise salumeria in Italy proud, it looks dumb here. Hope it doesn’t pry loose and land on somebody’s head.)
As you sit down, a framed menu of charcuterie is placed before you like the picture of a beloved child. There’s also a small folding menu of small Casella dishes and a wine list that offers some pretty good reds at $36, including a nice medium-bodied Barbera d’Alba from Galarej, which you can find online for $10 or $11. The folding menu reflects Casella’s thinking at his previous two restaurants, and much of the cooking is stunning.
Among salads, find the insalate pontormo ($7), a clutch of baby lettuce stuck together with finely textured scrambled eggs dotted with pancetta. It’s terrific, and you’ll end up ordering another tiny serving. The miniature lasagna ($8) may provoke a laugh when you see it: a flattened perfect square, two inches on a side and a mere inch in altitude, with a little cheese and ground meat annealed to the upper surface. It, too, is unforgettable, and so is the malloreddus all’Amatriciana, a Sardinian pasta with a Latium sauce, which illustrates the culinary latitude that Casella has given himself when it comes to reproducing Italian classics.
From the chef’s cowboy days come roasted slices of brisket mired in soupy polenta and a single over-braised rib in tomato sauce. You can skip the roasted acorn squash, but don’t miss the cauliflower gratiné crusted with bread crumbs or the seven-bean salad you spotted in the glass case as you came in. Casella is obsessed with beans, and a few years ago, after discovering that many of his favorites were unavailable in the States, he started his own company, called Republic of Beans.
If there were ever such a country, Casella would be its prime minister.