Genuine Rustic Fare Found in Phony Tuscan Diorama

“I’m sorry there are no mussels,” said our waiter as he handed us the menu. “They’re spawning now.”

Of course. So instead, we began with a selection of antipasto–but it wasn’t your usual salami, prosciutto and slab of Parmesan cheese. At Colina, a new Tuscan restaurant that opened last month near Union Square, the platter included fried frog’s legs, along with grilled quail, red and yellow beets cut in chunks, wax beans and green beans, pattypan squash and langoustines. Grissini thin as telephone wires, sprinkled with sea salt and wrapped in a ribbon of paper, were placed on the table, along with hot crostini topped with lumps of crab that had been lightly browned under the grill. Spears of grilled white and green asparagus tossed in brown butter with Parmesan were topped with fried quail eggs.

Our waiter brought over a whole pizza pie filled with prosciutto, cheese and olives on a wooden board. He cut the pizza into steaming wedges and passed them around. “I’ll leave the rest here for seconds.”

These were just the first courses on Colina’s “country menu,” already enough food tosustainafarmlaborercomfortably through an afternoon’s threshing. We were sitting at a long wooden table in what looked like the sort of Tuscan farmhouse that used to be bought for peanuts and respectfully restored by English expatriates around the hills of Chianti. The room is rustic and barnlike, with a slanted ceiling made of terra-cotta tiles, lined with heavy wood beams and hung with pretty modern glass chandeliers. The cement floor is stained a weathered ocher, and the walls are lined with fake windows with wooden shutters. There is an open kitchen at one end, hanging with copper pans, and the hall is lined with pots of rosemary and cedar trees. Piles of red peppers and lemons add a splash of color.

But if the whole thing feels like a room in a department store, it is no accident.

The room is not from Tuscany at all. It’s a colonial farmhouse transported piecemeal from Brazil and rebuilt in what used to be the pine furniture department of ABC Carpet & Home. Despite all the money and effort that have clearly gone into it, the place is strangely soulless. It reminds me of the period rooms in museums. They rarely work, and usually for the same reason: that fluorescent light in the fake windows. Doesn’t anyone find it odd, at night when it’s dark outside, to be sitting in a room where the windows are lit to suggest daytime?

But if the setting feels fake, the food does not.

Colina’s operating managers are Jeff Salaway and Mark Smith, owners of Nick and Toni’s, and the consulting chef is Jonathan Waxman (of Bud’s, Hulot’s, Bryant Park Grill and Nick and Toni’s in Manhattan), who is overseeing the kitchen with executive chef John Delucie. The menu is rather confusing at first. It is divided into complete meals, a three-course “express” menu with dessert for $45, a four-course country menu with dessert or cheese for $55, a six-course regional tasting menu for $65 (this month it’s Lombardy) and a chef’s tasting menu for $75. Lunch for $19.99 will continue after restaurant week and is a real bargain. The friendly staff are, for the most part, knowledgeable about the food and the wines on the excellent list (although I did have a waiter one night who seemed to have stumbled in from the furniture department).

The antipasti are set out in the “cantina,” the bar room, where you can get light dishes and are allowed to smoke. Although they were pretty good, they looked better than they tasted and weren’t as exciting as the rest of the food. I loved the tiny grilled soft-shell crabs I had one night, nicely crisp, with anchovies and peppers on a lemony bed of radicchio. The fritto misto, made with anchovies, squid, slivers of fennel and an aïoli sauce, was also good.

There are intriguing pastas on the menu, too, among them trecce, a rolled short pasta, with tender chunks of roasted lobster tossed in a lobster sauce and dotted with lobster coral. It was marvelous. But I was disappointed in the spaghetti with soggy zucchini flowers in a boring, vaguely creamy sauce with tomatoes and carrots.

Beyond the twinkling copper pots that hang outside the kitchen, Colina boasts a rotisserie and a wood-burning oven and grill. Fish is roasted simply in the oven. The ippoglosso (the poetic Italian name for halibut) on cippolini onions, arugula and cherry tomatoes is the kind of light summer dish I love.

All sorts of birds are spit-roasted, including “free range” pigeon (a term that raised a few eyebrows at my table), which arrived cut in thick, juicy, rare slices served with good Tuscan-style roast potatoes. I liked it better than the spit-roasted pork loin, which didn’t have a great deal of taste. But the truly outstanding dish I tried here was the Florentine steak, an extra 10 bucks, but as juicy and tender a piece of meat, underneath a charred crust, as you could wish for. It came with a platter of giant fries on a bed of fried tarragon leaves and sautéed spinach.

We wound up with a fresh fig tart, a thyme-scented olive oil polenta cake with a compote of plums, and stewed cherries with hot zabaglione. These were on a par with the rhubarb compote with lemon cream and meringue I’d had a few evenings previously, which was great (and much better than the bland chocolate mousse and the fruits in a rather stiff jelly).We followed up with the prosecco and a glass of a delicious Italian dessert wine, torcolato.

ABC Carpet & Home is accessible through the back of the restaurant and I’m sure that more than one customer will be inclined toward an impulse purchase or two if they down a few glasses of wine before the store closes. After lunch one day, clutching our leftovers in ABC Carpet & Home shopping bags, we staggered into the store where we were greeted by the last thing we wanted to see for several hours at least–a display of Italian food, complete with jars of Patsy’s tomato sauce and boxes of dried pasta.

Colina

* *

35 East 18th Street

505-2233

Dress: Loose

Noise Level: Low

Wine List: Excellent

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Lunch prix fixe $19.99, dinner prix fixe $45, $55, $65 or $75

Lunch: Daily noon to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Daily 6 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor