If not for an accompanying hillock of gigante beans, Café Altro Paradiso’s paunchy pork sausage — browned and left whole — would look right at home in your neighborhood biergarten. But not all is as it seems, so spear yourself a meaty nugget, dab on some spicy pear mostarda, and thank your stars that Ignacio Mattos is cooking Italian food again.
For the past five years, the Uruguayan-born chef has perplexed and entranced diners in equal measure. In 2012, he was abruptly ousted from Williamsburg’s wonky, wood-fired Isa for weaving sunchokes into dessert and serving sardines with their skeletons. He bounced back stronger than ever the following year, toning down his edginess (if only slightly) as an owner of Houston Street’s idiosyncratic Estela, where his artful small plates, coupled with partner Thomas Carter’s extensive wine knowledge, piqued the interest of the Obamas. Those restaurants garnered Mattos national acclaim, but his focused cooking at Altro Paradiso actually recalls an earlier time — specifically, his days as executive chef of downtown’s venerable rustic-Italian charmer Il Buco.
In this age of rainbow foodstuffs and block-long milkshake lines, you might be tempted to write off dishes like that poor lone sausage or a straightforward serving of anchovies on toast. Don’t. Mattos and chef de cuisine Aidan O’Neal home in on a few judiciously handled elements to make most of their plates soar. Those anchovies are nimbly laced with chile oil and parsley. Thinly sliced, citrusy raw fluke enjoys a jolt from halved caper berries. There’s a surprise lurking underneath the crimson blob of bison carpaccio, which arrives looking like a magician’s kerchief before the reveal: Beneath it lies a mound of salty potato crisps. The plating may give you pause, but who cares when the flavors are this pristine?
This is food that’s both self-aware and restrained. Since opening at the end of February, Carter and Mattos have made a number of tweaks to the menu, which largely remains loyal to a traditional Italian three-course setup. Buffalo mozzarella, once matched with crunchy celery and basil leaves, has been swapped out for cream-filled burrata served with tart preserved lemon. Gone are the ambitious daily specials (grilled quail, a Sunday chicken roast), nixed in favor of lengthening the appetizer selection to suit our collective, and apparently unwavering, obsession with small plates.
You’re encouraged to treat pasta as a mid course, or “primi,” which means modest portions. The upside is that it allows for more variety: There’s spaghetti that glistens with ramp pesto and plump gnocchi cooked up Northern Italian–style with pancetta, radicchio, walnuts, and pecorino romano. If you choose just one, though, make it the lasagnette, with its springtime jubilee of asparagus and morel mushrooms.
Main courses lack diversity, with only three or four options offered — none vegetarian. It’s also the section where you’ll find the menu’s only real dud: a Milanese cutlet of pounded-thin chicken; served with Dijon mustard, it’s technically precise but uninspiring. On the other hand, swordfish is excellent with a tarragon salsa verde, as is lamb (either as a chop or sliced shoulder) served with green-pea purée. And kudos to Mattos for sticking with calf’s liver, a notoriously finicky organ: Currently, it comes with spring onions and sweet, nutty polenta — a classic dish, fine-tuned to contemporary tastes.
The restaurant occupies the same curious West Soho block as the city’s only Ducati dealership and takes a cue from the Italian motorcycle’s subtle curves. Café Altro Paradiso’s tiered, high-ceilinged space is U-shaped, with a busy bar at one end and a wood-lined dining room at the other. Desserts, meanwhile, are stylish and austere: Choose from textbook tiramisu, panna cotta sauced with amarena cherries, and dense gelato (pairing honey with chestnuts or dried figs with vin santo wine) — though nothing defines “simple pleasure” quite like wedges of chocolate-walnut torte or rhubarb crostata, the latter a potent slice combining jewel-red stalks with a just-burnt-enough crust. They’re the Italian-pastry equivalent of a mic drop.
Café Altro Paradiso
234 Spring Street, 646-952-0828