December 30, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

It Takes Two: Via Carota

Luscious sweetbreads with artichoke heart on creamy polenta. My friend’s fork was faster.
Luscious sweetbreads with artichoke heart on creamy polenta. My friend’s fork was faster.

          I found it a charming, romantic notion that chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi, partners in life, declared their intention to join in holy Tuscan restaurantism at Via Carota. I thought back to my summers in Tuscany, the cucina of the hill country, the mountain cooking, the seaside restaurants. I looked forward to that ardor, the simplicity and focus.

The two chef-owners have an eye for vintage cooking tools and grocery store memorabilia.

          I’d never actually eaten at Williams’ popular Buvette. I avoid restaurants that don’t take reservations. I tried to get a table once by just walking in, but it was full. And while savvy friends praised I Sodi as their own secret find, I went once and found it good enough, but boring.

Wine and the four of us love the unexpected tranquility of the small back dining room.

          I wasn’t alone in my high expectations for the new venture. The partners had a romantic vision too – played out in bare brick and iron columns, school room chairs with menus rolled up where a text book might be, vintage kitchen tools and old grocery store bins and boxes on shelves and walls, pomegranates in a basin.

From the glass door in our sequesterie, I can spot Jody taking a breather during the service.

          “You’re the first to arrive,” I was greeted, then led away from the hectic front room action to a table for six in a small back room sanctuary. There were shelves of wine and a glass door looking into the kitchen. The waiter, Laurent, had a hot vintage look too.

The lardo crostini with honey and walnuts is a hit with my companions.

          “Have we been banished to this isolation booth?” I thought at first, paranoia roused. But by the time our foursome had settled in and Laurent was bringing my excellent Negroni, we were celebrating the tranquility. Our accidental fate. At times I caught sight of Jody, once perched on a stool, taking a breather. We unfurled the menus, admired the design -- the bold font and the small drawings of asparagus and mushrooms -- studied various boxes, categories and subdivisions, and focused on the big midsection devoted to vegetables, $10 each.

Grilled radicchio is fine, tossed with pine nuts, currants and goat cheese.

          I also wanted to taste the chicken liver crostini. Diane was eager to try the mangalista lardo with honey and walnuts. An order of crostini had two pieces, Laurent said. “Do you think the kitchen would cut each piece in two.” No one said no. Pig fat, even lardo blended with honey and walnut bits, is not my thing. I stood alone on that affront, but we all loved the rich and intense liver paste with capers.

Something in the mix besides garlic and chilies lends a welcome richness to the broccoli rabe.

          The vegetable plates arrive two at a time, whimsically. Some are good, a few are very good. The broccoletti with garlic and chilies was wonderful. I liked grilled radicchio with pine nuts, currants and pebbles of goat cheese, too. The day’s special puntarelle needed more anchovy pow. As a fervent kale debunker, I’m not sure what perversity made me order it. Pork sausage did little to redeem small ribbons of kale crunch. And cannellini beans in tomato was strictly ho-hum.

This rugged puntarelle might be even better with a heftier dose of anchovy in the vinaigrette.

          In the middle of the parade, two plump shanks of grilled octopus on green olive pesto arrive, tender but not gooey as octopus can be – a smallish amount.  And then, side by side, potato gnocchi in a rich Gorgonzola cream and intensely lemony risotto  -- “Meyer lemon, olive oil and water, no butter,” the waiter had said. Given the cries and sighs, I’d say, politeness in sharing either gnocchi or risotto is not recommended.

An excellent serving of octopus in texture and flavor but a bit stingy?

          Even though just two of us were sweetbread fans, I only got one chunk of the nicely cooked coratella in a fricassee with artichokes. The other innard lover had a swifter fork, I guess.  Laurent recited the dessert offering. We ended our meal with a spoonful of intensely rich hazelnut semifreddo and –in my case – two or three slivers of raspberry crostata. A $72 Chianti (not my choice, as you might guess) boosts our tab to $90 each. As we emerge from our sequesteria, the clamor outside comes as a shock. I flee to the street.

Both gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream and Meyer lemon risotto are intense and delicious.

          Was Via Carota more than just a romantic notion of a Tuscan childhood, more than a homey and moderately priced gift to the neighborhood? I needed another dinner. What would it be like eating in the din? I needed to brave the turbulence up front and try more dishes. It was difficult to reserve. It seemed no one answered the phone. No one responded to messages. A friend gave me Via Carota’s email. Jody responded, so she knew we were coming.

This is the best hazelnut semifreddo I’ve had in weeks after various poseurs around town.

          It takes a while to get drinks. It looks like our server is tending to half the room. Finally she swoops in and recites the day’s specials – there are several, a good sign. Just what you’d expect if you were at your neighborhood trattoria in Tuscany. The kitchen sends a gift of salami and pecorino with olives and sun-dried tomatoes.

Lush fresh cheese and sun-dried tomatoes oozing olive oil on the house’s toasted bread.

          When I ask the waitress to have the two slices of stracchino crostini cut into four pieces – the kitchen sends out two portions instead. The house’s marvelous toasted bread is piled high with lush fresh cheese and sun-dried tomatoes oozing olive oil. Sweet and tart, it’s almost a dessert. Alas, the salt cod fritters are bland. I take a second bite to be sure.

Brussels sprouts, nutty with butter and Parmesan, score among the best plates of the evening.

          Then the veggies get toted in. Brussels sprouts are perfectly cooked -- not too much, not too little – nutty from sautéing in butter and Parmesan cheese. Barbabietola is a fresh toss of pickled beets, apples and goat’s milk feta. Curls of endive are piled high with walnuts, slices of pear and Gorgonzola.

No need for a macaroni fix if you have this lush baked cauliflower with fontina gratin.

          But it’s the rich, cheesy swamp of cauliflower that makes my day, so like an out-of-control macaroni and cheese. I wonder if it is too rich for my companions? I seem to be getting more than my share. I like the pappardella with wild boar ragu too, even though it’s much too salty.

The fried rabbit with a battered hunk of fried breads is a strikeout with our foursome.

          “I’ve never tasted fried rabbit,” says Josh. No problem. A few chunks of  listless rabbit,  in a thick batter sit on a slab of fried bread. I smash a garlic clove onto the bread to see if that helps. A monolithic chunk of braised short rib is served attached to its big bone. My first forkful is deliciously fatty, the second surprisingly dry. 

I chose the pear poached in red wine sauce because it’s a classic of the season.

          I’m assigned to choose dessert. Pear in sweet red wine syrup seems properly wintry to me. A pretty little plate of biscotti, cookies and chocolate dipped gooseberries comes alongside. Toll: $65 pp.

This little dish of biscotti, cookies and chocolate dipped gooseberries is a gracious finale.

          The two dinners are so similar, authentically Tuscan or, at least, Italian, welcoming, uneven, I find myself thinking I won’t send you on a long detour. The neighborhood will embrace Via Carota, as they do Buvette and I Sodi, for exactly what it is…charming and original and mostly good enough.

51 Grove Street between 7th Avenue South and Bleecker. 212 255 1962. Seven days starting Janauary 3 from 8 a.m. till midnight. Expect specialties from the Roman Ghetto for breakfast.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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