For the two years that Calliope held down its corner of the East Village, Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson built a following for their charming French cooking. Via that menu, they became so synonymous with the restaurant that when they split from the business earlier this year, remaining owner Eric Anderson struggled to find a chef willing to take over the concept and kitchen. “We were casting around for people, and we kept finding people who were super talented but didn’t want to be involved with someone else’s concept and food,” says now-partner and general manager Michael Philip Fisher. “Slowly but surely, we realized that the only way to attract a super talented chef was to give them a fresh start.”
And so the team retooled into Contrada (84 East 4th Street, 212-260-8484), an Italian neighborhood joint where the kitchen is under the command of Del Posto vet Jason Audette.
Contrada has been operating as a “pseudo pop-up,” per Fisher, for a few months now, though he acknowledges that’s a bit of a misnomer, since the restaurant doesn’t plan to pop down. Rather, it’ll ramp up to full operation by July 29, when the menu will no longer be stamped with the word “draft,” though dishes may continue to evolve.
Contrada is an old Italian word for “neighborhood,” and that’s what the owners are trying to cultivate here. “Eric and Ginevra’s food, in all the best ways, was challenging food,” says Fisher. “We really wanted to make sure the food was more accessible without being downmarket or stupid. We have oddballs on the menu — we’re curing guanciale in house, for instance — but this is a little bit more how we thought people wanted to eat. It’s closer to their comfort zone and healthier.” Contrada is also less expensive — Fisher points out that at the end of its tenure, the least expensive entree on the list was $24. Now, the most expensive item is $22.
Audette has placed emphasis on seafood and fresh pasts, plus plenty of vegetables, like burrata with tomato and a roasted carrot salad. You’ll also find porchetta on the menu, though Fisher says this fits within the healthy paradigm because dishes are built to split. “We really try to get people to share a number of things, so if you have one calorie bomb, it’s fine, because you have a bowl of carrots, too. It’s a more healthful take.” And one he hopes will lure neighbors in a couple of times a week.
The restaurant is also doing brunch, which subs egg dishes and pastries for the pasta and crudo. Look for treats — including homemade pop tarts — from pastry chef Alycia Harrington, who was also the pastry chef at Calliope. And Contrada has introduced a daily happy hour, too; stop by between 4 and 7 p.m. daily (and during brunch, as well, on weekends) for $1 oysters, $6 glasses of Prosecco, and a list of snacks like shishito peppers and bacalao.
The food pairs with a list of wines and cocktails, and one drink is always a designated partner cocktail, says Fisher: “Order that drink, and $2 goes to a cultural partner in the neighborhood.” The current beneficiary is the Between the Seas Festival, a performing arts festival that hits the East Village next week.
Anderson is extremely passionate about fueling local arts and culture, says Fisher, and in addition to making contributions to organizations, he’s built a wall of rotating art in the restaurant, and he’s hosting a number of literary and artistic events. Look for upcoming writer dinners with Daphne Merkin, who has written for the New Yorker and New York Times Magazine.
Anderson was meant to install Contrada upstate in Hastings on Hudson, where he still has a space. He’s still planning to do something there, though Fisher says he’ll get his ducks in a row here first.
You might note a few ongoing cosmetic changes here, too: The owners revamped the ceiling to better absorb sound and took down Calliope’s mirrors; they plan to make some changes to the floor at some point, too.
Contrada is open from 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, from 4 p.m. to midnight on Thursday and Friday, from noon to midnight on Saturday, and from noon to 11 p.m. on Sunday.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 16, 2014