For decades, Italian cuisine in New York meant red sauce and lots of it. With the opening of Bamonte’s in 1900 and Ferdinando’s Focacceria four years later, tomato-heavy Neapolitan and Sicilian restaurants enjoyed a certain sustained verisimilitude, carrying the torch for their motherland while paving the way for other regional Italian cuisines to follow suit. By contrast, where would Italian dining in 2013 New York be without Apulian burrata? With establishments representing regions from Piedmont to Sicily and everywhere in between, the city’s Italian restaurants offer a fairly well-rounded picture of cooking from all over the boot. Here are the 10 best.
10. MD Kitchen, 1012 East 15th Street, Brooklyn
After huffing and puffing from customers wistful for a taste of Di Fara’s defunct menu of Italian-American dishes–items that were gradually phased out as the Avenue J pizza shop attained Kardashian levels of fame for its pies–the DeMarco family opened this sliver of a takeout spot around the corner from their moneymaker to focus on reviving these flavors for a new audience. Just as Dom Sr. still clips leaves of basil onto his pies, daughter Maggie and her staff display a level of devotion to quality that produces knockout hero sandwiches (including sausage with broccoli rabe and an exceptional shrimp parmigiana), generously-portioned pastas and old-school platters of meatballs, Italian sausage, eggplant parmigiana, and chicken scallopini. Feel like enduring a night of delicious regret? Stop into MD Kitchen before hitting up madhouse Di Fara. The wait for your pizza will melt away like the blistered mozzarella on a plate of parmigiana.
9. Porsena, 21 East Seventh Street
Sara Jenkins’ pasta-centric East Village hideaway is a boon for noodle know-it-alls who think they’ve seen every al dente shape under the Tuscan sun. Inside these brick walls, the chef tosses thick rings of anelloni with spicy lamb sausage and mustard greens. The greens appear again paired with tiny, curled gnochetti pasta slapped with saline anchovies and lifted by chili heat. Composed appetizers and entrees echo the rustic charms of the restaurant’s design, including a roast chicken perfumed with chestnuts and an inventive take on vitello tonnato that replaces the standard veal with gamier lamb. But above all else, what makes Porsena so damned special is Jenkins’ willingness to capitalize on the freedom that comes with owning your own place–specifically, with the experiments taking place next door at Porsena Extra Bar, experiments that have yielded things like “Grilled Kimcheese” and a deservedly popular summer taco pop-up.
8. Dominick’s, 2335 Arthur Avenue, Bronx
A perennial favorite among nostalgic devotees of Italian-American food, Dominick’s has been an Arthur Avenue destination for over 50 years. Although an a la carte menu is now on display, most diners prefer to order the original way–by simply asking their waiter what the kitchen is cooking up that night. Among the cavalcade of items recited, standouts abound, like Linguine all Gianni sporting chunks of chopped shrimp and clams and a skull-sized stuffed artichoke packed with olive oil-soaked breadcrumbs. In fact, channel your future self and order anything stuffed, particularly stuffed peppers and stuffed veal breast. Portions are massive and necessitate at least one other dining partner–dining here alone seems almost masochistic–though be careful. Sharing a platter of pepper-smothered pork pizzaiola studded with sauce-soaked potatoes is as dangerous as sharing a needle. Don’t let the occasional celebrity appearance fool you; this is and always will be a neighborhood joint.
7. Maialino, 2 Lexington Avenue
It seems appropriate that Danny Meyer, emperor of the Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant empire, would choose to focus on the cuisine of Rome. Meyer designs concepts that beg to be franchised, even if he’s only bestowed that honor upon Shake Shack. We’d be willing to bet on cronut-sized crowds should Maialino’s chef Nick Anderer ever decide to open a shop devoted to his brunch-only honey butter pork biscuits. The airy space is gorgeous in the afternoon, when the waning sun illuminates the large bar. Is it nature being prescient? The restaurant offers one of the best happy hours in town, with small plates of gussied-up bar snacks like greaseless pork cracklings perfect for dipping in spicy vinegar.
6. al di là, 248 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn
The Northern Italian food coming out of chef Anna Klinger’s Park Slope kitchen hasn’t lost any steam since she and husband Emiliano Coppa opened their doors in 1998. Waits are notorious, but once you’re inside, the service shines as bright as the rich, honest cooking. A ceramic crock holding tender wine-braised tripe shielded by a thick slice of grilled country bread is hearty enough to hold you over until tomorrow, but to pass up Klinger’s ethereal pastas would be a mistake. Her casunzei–pillowy, filled dumplings popular in North Eastern Italian provinces like Verona–have been on the menu since day one, and for good reason. Thin hills of dough do their best to conceal a beet and ricotta filling so vibrantly crimson that it can’t help but show through its exterior. The chef balances the beet’s earthy sweetness with a pool of melted butter and poppy seeds. If you’re in the mood for game, al di là’s braised rabbit is one of the city’s great bunny dishes.
5. Rosemary’s, 18 Greenwich Avenue
A melding of modern city dining and Italian tradition, this Italian restaurant from Bobo’s Carlos Suarez is something of a playground for chef Wade Moises. Many of the herbs and vegetables find their way to the plate by way of the restaurant’s rooftop garden, and Moises and his team cure meats in-house as well as make fresh mozzarella daily. Pastas stay relatively tame and affordable (spaghetti pomodoro, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe), but the chef lets loose elsewhere on the menu, like a starter of octopus “salami” as soft and gelatinous as headcheese. Of the various items available to share, the sleeper may be Moises’ carne misti, a cornucopia of animal parts including espresso-glazed pork ribs, smoked lamb shoulder, and chicken brined in mozzarella whey.
4. Il Buco, 47 Bond Street
The older sibling to the more casual Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, Donna Lennard’s rustic Italian restaurant started life as an antiques shop, and the artsy confines–communal tables, copper pots and earthenware–seem curated to remind you of just that. Ingredients are sourced with as much care as the décor, including a series of Umbrian olive oils created specifically for the restaurant and greenmarket finds that make their way into specials on the nightly changing menu. Although chef Joel Hough works wonders with seafood, we love his shatter-crisp porchetta, made with heritage pork from beloved greenmarket purveyor Flying Pigs Farm.
3. Perla, 24 Minetta Lane
West Village impresario Gabe Stulman found his meaty muse in whiz kid Michael Toscano, who commands the wood-fired oven in his open kitchen with a steely composure befitting a chef well beyond his years. All of that drive is focused into over-the-top, often atypical hearty fare like veal tongue terrine, crispy headcheese, and a signature pasta of pappardelle laced with duck ragu hiding under a deluge of shaved foie gras. The protein profusion continues with chicken sided with sweetbreads and a massive veal head meant to split between three people; a bright succotash is the only reprieve from such carnivorous excesses.
2. Del Posto, 85 Tenth Avenue
Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s crown jewel had grand ambitions from the start, and with the help of balls-to-the-wall executive chef Mark Ladner and punk rock pastry man Brooks Headley, the restaurant provides a landmark dining experience all but unparalleled among its contemporaries despite a dining room so enormous that, when seated at certain tables, the space feels like the mahogany and marble-appointed grand concourse of a luxury cruise liner. She’s a beaut nonetheless, and the perfect setting for showcasing Ladner’s brilliance, including a now-legendary 100-layer lasagna and lamb coaxed into tender submission. You’ll pay handsomely for such rewards, but when the cooking is this thoughtful and the service this polished, it’s hard to do anything but open your mouth and take another bite. Have a loose afternoon? $39 gets you a Michelin-starred three-course lunch.
1. Rubirosa, 235 Mulberry Street
In the battle for red sauce supremacy, AJ Pappalardo and Al Di Meglio’s Nolita pizzeria brings a taste of Staten Island to Mulberry Street with addictive thin crust pies–carbon copies of the crisp rounds that have been coming out of AJ’s dad’s ovens at Joe & Pat’s for over fifty years. Pastas are appropriately al dente, but it’s the sausage-heavy lasagna for two that surprises most. A $26 behemoth, it would still be a steal if Di Meglio’s cooking were half as competent. Hefty pasta sheets support layers of cheese strewn with hunks of fennel sausage and mini meatballs enriched with pecorino. Across the street from Torrisi Parm, Rubirosa gives the golden boys a run for their money with stellar chicken parmigiana. While not as grandiose as Carbone’s gargantuan veal chop, the pounded cutlet is sizeable in its own right under a thick blanket of mozzarella and Parmesan.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2013