No Red-Checked Tablecloths: A True Tuscan on East 55th

You’d expect a place called Chianti to have, if not red-checked tablecloths and candles in straw-covered bottles, then at least (given its location) the sort of contemporary look–washed yellow walls and bare wood floors–favored by chic Tuscan places in New York City. But Chianti, on the corner of Second Avenue and 55th Street, feels less like an Italian restaurant than the dining room of a modern high-rise hotel. When I arrived for dinner one evening, a line of people clutching down jackets and overcoats clogged the entrance. I had been told on the telephone when I made the reservation to be prompt because of “walk-ins.” I supposed these people had been strolling down the street going nowhere in particular when they were suddenly struck by hunger, and their footsteps had led them to the welcoming doors of Chianti for a good plate of spaghetti.

Whether this was the case or not, the open-necked shirts and casual sweaters seemed at odds with the 50’s-style formality of the dining room, with its scalloped boudoir curtains, thick carpeting and dark green ultra-suede banquettes. The restaurant was redecorated a few months ago, and its walls are now covered with dark brown silk and lined with wine cabinets. The tables (those along the sides of the room are rather jammed together), are set with candles, white cloths and linen napkins folded in stand-up triangles, no less. Muzak tinkles away on the sound system and there is a TV over the bar.

No sooner had I sat down than my attention was diverted by four young men in dark suits who were seated at the next table. “He’s got witnesses,” said one of them. “He can nail him.”

This made it rather hard to concentrate on the menu.

“There are things we’re incapable of bringing out from a flow standpoint,” said his colleague, somewhat obtusely.

Lawyers.

A friendly waiter, who wore a ponytail and carried one hand behind his back like an English butler, put down a basket of focaccia on the table and took our order.

The chef at Chianti, Scott Conant, is not an Italian, but a 27-year-old American who trained first at San Domenico and then at Il Toscanaccio with the master of Tuscan cooking, Cesare Casella. He stays firmly within tradition when it comes to the classic preparations and doesn’t attempt to put together combinations for the sake of novelty. This is the sort of cooking you hope to find when you go to Tuscany. To start, I couldn’t resist the marinated tuna (which replaced Alaskan salmon that day) with shavings of bottarga (pressed tuna roe), sprinkled with pearls of caviar. The rich taste of the tuna was cut by the strong, tangy roe, and the combination was extraordinary. Chunks of grilled octopus were lightly charred, chewy but tender, coated with a delicate olive oil. And the fritto misto, a pile of shrimp, calamari, artichokes, eggplant and zucchini in the lightest, most delicate herb-flecked batter imaginable, was one of the best I’ve had anywhere, including Italy. Also good was the fricassee of wild mushrooms with soft, creamy polenta, topped with grana padano and white truffle oil–my kind of food. Meanwhile, things were heating up at the next table.

“I don’t like litigating in Federal District Court. They dance around the edge,” said one young man, waving his fork in the air. “We gotta get tough.”

His friend agreed. “Hey, this is the real world.”

My real world by this time consisted of a special of the day, a plate of perfectly cooked, chewy orecchiette tossed with little chunks of bacon and broccoli di rape. Mr. Conant has a sure hand with pasta, from his simple homemade thin spaghetti served in a plum tomato and basil sauce to a special of pappardelle topped with a rich ragout of wild boar.

No self-respecting New York Tuscan restaurant these days is without a wood-burning grill, and Mr. Conant makes good use of his. The salmon, flavored with garlic, olive oil and fresh porcini, was crackling on the outside and moist and perfectly cooked within. I was a bit disappointed with the Black Angus Florentine steak, which didn’t have a great deal of flavor, although it was cooked just right. It came with a rather sweet sauce of red wine and cassis flavored with apples, honey and juniper. I preferred the humongous veal chop, burnished, pink and juicy, served with crisp sweetbreads, mushrooms and caramelized shallots.

By the time dessert arrived, the lawyers were onto the subject of employee morale and looking around for their bill. Too bad they missed the fabulous cannoli, which were made with a delicate sesame tuile wrapped around a light, orange-scented mascarpone mousse. Also offered were a good crostata with plums and a pleasant apple tart with a thin crust. Biscotti, shaped like Olmec statues, came with a dark chocolate sauce for dipping.

I wondered whether the lawyers had been “walk-ins” or if they’d come all the way uptown from the Federal courthouse just for dinner. Chianti may feel like a neighborhood restaurant in many ways, but as far as the food is concerned, it’s well worth a journey from any part of town.

Chianti

* *

1043 Second Avenue, at 55th Street

980-8686

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Expensive, Italian and American, with interesting Tuscan wines

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses lunch $9.75 to $17.25, dinner $13.75 to $28.50

Brunch: Sunday noon to 3 P. M.

Lunch: Sunday to Friday noon to 3:30 P.M.

Dinner: Sunday 5:30 P.M. to 10 P.M., Monday to Thursday to 11 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 11:30 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor