Forty years ago, an Italian-born chef named Alfredo Viazzi turned his back on the vast vat of tomato sauce that the city’s Italian restaurants had long depended on, and the fad for so-called Tuscan cooking was born. At Trattoria da Alfredo, a small place just off Abingdon Square, he charmed the likes of James Beard, who excitedly dug into beef carpaccio, chicken-liver crostini, acorn squash tortelloni, green beans with pesto, and steaming plates of pasta that were gloriously un-red, flying in the face of a century of Italian-American cooking.
Leap ahead to today and find Viazzi’s culinary sensibilities now de rigueur in the city’s Italian establishments, a formula that includes scintillatingly fresh produce, pungent herbs, more roasting and less stewing, and a simplicity of presentation that puts the taste of the main ingredients front and center. In fact, his style of cooking—along with the work of Alice Waters and others—inexorably led to the local and seasonal sensibilities of modern foodies. And now one of the city’s best evocations of Viazzi’s persuasive ideals has debuted not far from his original West Village stomping ground.
Rosemary’s is situated at the corner of 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue in a barnlike space that was formerly Village Paper, a party-goods store destroyed by fire two years ago. Now, the high-ceilinged dining room resembles a rustic osteria, with exposed beams and bricks, lazily rotating ceiling fans, and tables that spill out onto the sunny pavement. At one side of the room, a towering stairway leads to the roof, where the city’s latest restaurant fetish is to be found: a garden.
Although a quick calculation demonstrates that its squashes, tomatoes, and peppers are not numerous enough to have much impact on the menu, the rows of fresh herbs do. All the more potent for being just-harvested, these herbs dominate pastas like cavatelli with crushed peas and mint ($14)—and you’ve never eaten anything greener. It comes from a roster of five pastas that contains no disappointments. Spaghetti al pomodoro ($12) is simplicity itself, the tomatoes barely cooked, with a tip of the hat to Scott Conant, who reinvented the dish at L’Impero. My favorite pasta is chitarra alla carbonara, a traditional Roman spaghetti richly sauced with cheese, hog jowl, and egg yolk.
In fact, the forte of Rosemary’s lies not in pioneering new recipes, but in making a choice selection from the catalog established by Viazzi and his successors. Mario Batali must be thanked for inspiring the house-cured meats in the Salumi section ($9 each), including testa, a loose and fragrant headcheese, and—richly veined with fat and crushed red chiles—the neck-meat ham called capacolla. Both are beyond wonderful. Skip down to the seafood apps, and there’s an octopus salami that’s startlingly reminiscent of the testa, only gluier, recalling a similar dish at Batali’s Otto, here improved with a vinegary relish of finely minced giardiniera.
The menu offers 10 sections, each with only a handful of possibilities. Putting a meal together is a breeze. In Verdure ($5 each), find a generous bowl of warm, citrusy olives that marries well with a glass of wine on a sweltering day; in Formaggi, discover an all-Italian cavalcade of cheeses, with the exception of Moses Sleeper, a cheese awakened from Vermont. From the Insalate section, the restaurant’s own perfect mozzarella arrives with its shiny dome streaming green olive oil and herbs ($10). For one of the best deals on the menu, raid the side dishes called Contorni for the $5 plate of rosemary-roasted potatoes, and eat it as an app. The only section you should skip is Focacce: The thick, chewy crust proves this place is no pizzeria.
While one is often well-advised not to stray into secondi in Tuscan-style restaurants because the pastas are much better and cheaper, that would be a mistake at Rosemary’s. Especially dope is the lamb leg ($23): four stout cubes of rare meat scented with smoke. Served with fruity mostarda, the porchettina (pork tenderloin) is also fab, but to take full advantage of what’s happening on the roof, pick minestra di stagione ($18), a seasonal multi-vegetable casserole that demonstrates, once and for all, that a stew doesn’t have to include flesh to be great.
The mainly Italian wine list encompasses a novel idea you’re likely to be seeing more of in the future. All bottles are $40, most available in generous pours for $10. While this might keep you from parsing prices (though I wish the bottles were $30 instead), the 40-bottle list is uneven and of wildly diverse wholesale value. The solution: Grab your smartphone, smarty-pants, and let Google help you order your vino.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.