Maybe it was the increasingly far-flung Italian vacations Americans were taking—forsaking the usual Roman holiday for a ramble in the Campania or Lake Como countryside. Or perhaps it was the growing popularity of Tuscany itself, flames fanned by the 1996 publication of Under the Tuscan Sun. Whatever the reason, regional food from the boot-shaped peninsula eventually came to eclipse red-sauced Italian-American fare on NYC menus. And while Tuscan food’s simplicity and freshness dominated for a time, regional cuisine from other areas gradually crept in, creating a new type of restaurant entirely. With its synthesis of urban and rural fare from the entire country, the Italian bistro quickly superseded its ailing French prototype as Gotham’s most popular destination for mid-priced dining.
Recently, we’ve seen the Italian bistro perfected, and the Upper West Side’s Osteria Cotta represents a milestone in the process. It’s a type of restaurant you’d never see in Italy: There’s something on the menu for everyone, from almost every region of the country. The place looks like all the other outdoor cafés on Columbus Avenue. Shaded by awnings, dozens of tables spill onto the sidewalk in three tiers, allowing the diner to be as close to or as far away from the passing throngs as desired. The interior is dark and cozy, with raised tables radiating from a bar flickeringly lit by a wood-burning oven—an appliance that’s de rigueur in Italian bistros. For celebrities and paranoiacs, there’s a concealed table perched high above the bar, accessed by a narrow stairway.
The crazy popularity of small expensive pizzas, claiming to be—like fragments of the True Cross in the hands of religious zealots—perfect evocations of the pies of Naples, guarantees any new Italian bistro will be serving them. The baked circles of dough at Osteria Cotta are relatively close to Naples pies, and the limited selection encompasses the usual crowd-pleasers. The Margherita ($11) is light and flavorful, made with good mozzarella, while the Calabrese features the miniature red chilis craved by residents of the boot’s toe, plus slices of their signature salami, soppressata. From the northern city of Parma comes a pizza flaunting the rich, oily flavors of prosciutto and Parmesan against a backdrop of bitter arugula ($14). The only pie that tanks is the one sporting mushrooms and white truffle oil. It smells like a solvent you’d use to clean a car’s engine.
One should forgo pizza as an app, though, because there’s such a lush selection of other starters. The catalog includes Salumi (cured meats), Formaggi (cheeses), Fritti (fried things), Bruschette (smeared toasts), and Verdure (vegetable matter). Once again hailing from divergent parts of the country, Verdure ($4 each) is the best deal. You might pick the sweet eggplant relish shot with pine nuts called caponata (Sicily), the stewed Castelluccio lentils (Tuscany), the roasted cauliflower with pickled pepperoncini (Apulia), or the oil-slicked red peppers (anywhere). They all come with plenty of toast, and two or three could happily make an entire meal.
The bruschette ($3 each, four for $10) are much larger than their Italian counterparts. I’m still drooling over the elongated crostino domed with snowy ricotta and stripes of verdant pesto (Genoa). For those who miss the signature pommes frites of the French bistro, fried logs of smooshed chickpeas are just the ticket—swiped from Provence, France, where they’re called panisse. But you can also get fried calamari and fried rice balls, demonstrating that Sicily is indeed the world’s center of frying. Salads ($8 each) run from the Caprese (Isle of Capri) to the Caesar (invented at an Italian restaurant in Mexico). A meal at Osteria Cotta might tire you out from your virtual travels.
Then we have the last two savory courses traditional to an Italian osteria: primi and secondi. As with nearly every Italian bistro in town, the pastas tend to be magnifico, tendered in heaping servings suitable for two—especially an eggplant-and-ricotta ravioli ($11), and a linguine with baby clams that’s probably the city’s best version, briny and almost smoky. There’s also a rather kinky papparedelle with braised pork, kale, and smoked mozzarella. It seems more apropos to one of those pig roasts over on Governors Island. Like the hundred other Italian bistros in the city, the secondi are generally lacking, especially a tough skirt steak presented atop a puddle of salsa verde. Best is a pork chop ($19) that comes pre-sliced with more of those excellent chickpea fries.
But, as a replacement for your secondo, wouldn’t you really rather have a pizza?