February 6, 2006 | Ask Gael

We're hungry for comfort on the Upper East Side.

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

The narrow storefront that was Butterfield 81 has always catered to the neighborhood, and that's Francesco Antonucci's mind-set here in a room that is stripped-down and simple. He's kind to the budget too, with entrées starting at $17. Surprisingly, the ber-Venetian chef, co-founder of Remi, has decided to blur his heritage with an American melting-pot menu at Antonucci. Sadly, there are scant few pastas on the menu, one of them a side of truffled macaroni and cheese. No, he hasn't abandoned savory small plates of cicchetti. Meatballs, sweet-and-sour sardines, crab cakes, arancini, and fried olives are among the classic Venetian bar snacks he offers in a tasting for two. But we're fighting over the marvelous soppressata on the salumi gathering of lardo, cured duck, coppa, and prosciutto. Roasted winter vegetables come with a properly salty bagna cauda drizzled on top. He tosses semolina croutons into a chunky beet-and-Gorgonzola salad. Mashed chicken livers rolled in polenta with sweet onions stuck to the plate is a big mistake in my book. The best of the entrees is short ribs with celeriac puree. Seared salmon, perfectly cooked and mounted on savory bacon-braised cabbage, is utterly tasteless. But as you might hope from a Venetian, the mushroom risotto is perfect. And the odd juxtaposition of coffee granita piled atop sensational chocolate pudding turns out to be brilliant.

170 East 81st Street near Third Avenue 212 570 5100