January 27, 1987 | Vintage Insatiable

Barocco: Flaunting Upscale Italian

          Perhaps you’ve never heard of Church Street. Or Walker. That corner is an $8 or $10 taxi ride from uptown zip codes, and odds are your non-English-speaking cabby has no idea where to go, either. But if the cuisinary hot line hasn’t put Church Street on your gastrointestinal track, it soon will. The art world has already discovered Barocco, a spare, minimally gussied-up trattoria in TribeCa, where it’s no trick to park or flaunt your limousine. And with Si Newhouse and Random House sachem Howard Kaminsky rooted at stage center, it’s only a matter of moments before we’ll all have a tough time booking a table.

          What a coup for food-world innocent Danny Emerman and his self-taught chef-partner, Sandro Prosperi. They longed to create a neighborhood hangout -- like the Odeon -- to prove that good Italian food needn’t be third-generation Little Italy or formal and over-Frenchified.

          Here and there is a checkerboard of tile, some glass brick, odd fixtures that do nothing to brighten a slightly uncomfortable gloom. But smart-looking people in aggressively casual garb make their own cheer. Thousands of dollars in leather wraps around Scarlett O’Hara waists, and coiffures are so bizarrely stunning, you almost can’t see that the faces they frame aren’t even pretty. What a wonderful time to be alive!

          Of course it is noisy -- how else would we know for sure that this is the place to be? Sudden abrupt snarls of music are torturous. Our waiter, Tino, flirtatious and dashing (three quarters American Indian, he confides), sits down to discuss the order. “You must have the potatoes,” he says. And he’s right. They’re first-rate, pan-roasted with fried leaves of sage and sprigs of rosemary -- even better when we ask for them extra crisp.

          To win this restaurant critic, start the wooing with irresistible bread, as Barocco does. Here it is a huge country loaf, house-baked, split lengthwise, sliced, and wrapped warm in a napkin. But it’s even better as fettunta, grilled and oozing garlicky olive oil. At $2, an order -- one lonely slice -- isn’t enough for two. Better to charge $3 and double the addiction.

          Prices are a bit greedy here -- entrées $9 to $21 -- and mount quickly if you can’t stop eating fettunta and must have Pellegrino. Ask for New York water and you get a pitcher, right on your table.

          The chef knows how to grill eggplant, peppers, and shiitake mushrooms. Excellent salami, prosciutto, and a big slab of fettunta make an antipasto misto to serve three or four. But don’t miss an elegant insalata of paper-thin slices of fennel and parmigiana shards. Plump green ricotta-and-chard-filled tortelloni in a puddle of cream is the pasta of choice. You may find your spaghettini with bay scallops overwhelmed by a flash of hot pepper. Not me. Penne, the quill-shaped noodle, with rabbit and olives seems a bit pallid till you add a salty edge of fresh grated parmigiana.

          Thin slices of arista, pork dosed with garlic and rosemary, served lukewarm around a hill of broccoli di rape or Swiss chard, is the best entrée. Whole striped bass roasted with garlic and thyme will seem overdone only to someone like me who wants fish just-cooked. Grilled chicken could be crisper, but it’s tasty. Malvasia, an apricot-scented dessert wine, subtly flavors juicy veal with a staccato of green peppercorns. Rack of lamb is good enough. The flavorless and tough steak disappoints.

          From a small but interesting wine list, two modest reds -- Vecchie Terre di Montegili ($17) and Brovia Barbaresco at $19 -- make good drinking.

          Even the desserts score a point here: fluffy good cheesecake, an almond pastry with layered apple thins, fine chocolate cake, and a creamy tiramisu with slivers of chocolate.

          Leave in a halo of garlic. Now you know Church Street well enough to return.

Barocco, 301 Church Street