On the Cusp of Little Italy, Pizza, Bleached Boys, Moonlight

There are not many places to eat outdoors comfortably in Manhattan. And this summer there haven’t been many nights when you felt like dining anywhere without an air-conditioner. But Va Tutto (Italian for “anything goes!”), a trattoria which opened at the end of June on Cleveland Place, has a delightful garden. In this setting of blue painted walls, latticework and candlelit tables set with white cloths, it’s not hard to pretend you’re by the Mediterranean or in a courtyard in Tuscany, instead of on the border of Little Italy and East SoHo.

As I was sitting there on a recent night, tucking into a thin-crusted pizza and a glass of chilled pinot grigio, I realized I had been there before. Va Tutto used to be a nondescript, old-fashioned Italian restaurant where I would come with my son when he was still in his stroller. Around that time a friend of mine, who is very beautiful, brought in her baby, who started to cry. After a few minutes, the waiter appeared with a tray containing a cork and a glass of brandy.

“The gentleman over there sends it with his compliments.” he said. “He says dip the cork in the brandy and put it in the baby’s mouth. It will make her sleep.”

Outraged, she looked over at the gentleman. Beaming across the room, at a table surrounded by his henchmen, was John Gotti.

Now Mr. Gotti is in Marion, Ill., getting his meals delivered through a slot in his door. The food at 23 Cleveland Place has certainly changed since his time. There are still veal meatballs on the menu, but they’re grilled, and they’re served with fried sage instead of piled on spaghetti, and they’re topped with Parmesan that’s not grated but shaved. The waiters aren’t in tuxedos, but–like one who sported cropped bleached hair and a matching goatee–tend to look like actors in a Jim Jarmusch movie. The restaurant draws a very different crowd, too–young and hip, in strap dresses and sandals, henna tattoos

and T-shirts.

A blue flag emblazoned with the restaurant’s name hangs out front, next to a French bistro that was completely empty when we walked by one rainy night. (Perhaps they have a covered garden in the back.) Va Tutto, by contrast, was full. The long, narrow room has a small bar and a few tables in front; a banquette stretches along an open brick wall that leads to a dining room in the back, where there’s a brick fireplace. Beyond is the garden. Its only drawback is the green garden chairs, which are supremely uncomfortable. Votive candles are placed on the tables in delicate wrought-iron filigree cages, but since the latter aren’t lined with glass, the wind usually blows the candles out.

Chef Maria Giordano Lupo, who used to be an assistant chef at Gotham Bar and Grill, spent several weeks in Italy working in restaurants and on farms and vineyards before she reopened the restaurant. Her food is not piled up in architectural heaps, Gotham-style, but is straightforward and uncomplicated, with zesty, strong flavors. Some of it is very good indeed, beginning with the fruity olive oil and crusty bread that is placed on the table when you sit down. The wine list is well priced and has interesting selections from small Italian vineyards.

The fritti misti of vegetables–green tomatoes, beets, eggplant and beet greens–arrives sizzling in an airy batter, with a perfectly balanced lemon vinaigrette. Baby calamari, tender and lightly charred from the grill, are matched with a coarse-grained polenta and greens. The grilled veal polpetti (meatballs) are wonderful, and I’d go back just for those. Green salad is fresh but has too much vinegar in the dressing. I was surprised by the plate of cold meats, which consists of dried sausage, prosciutto and slivers of fresh figs, the meats all chopped in small squares. Why? A trio of crostini (tomato and basil, dolce gorgonzola and salami, chicken liver and sage) is pleasant but nothing special.

The restaurant’s wood-burning oven turns out pizzas and roasts; steaks and chops are delivered from its wood-burning grill. The pizzas have thin crusts and can be topped with interesting Italian cheeses–caciotta, fossa and scodellato–porcini and truffle oil, or simply with tomato-and-basil “margherita.” The calzone, puffed up like a giant slipper, is delicious, stuffed with a sharp, creamy cheese and prosciutto.

The ravioli of the day were plump, gossamer pillows filled with golden beets. Campanelle is tossed with an intense sauce made with roast tomatoes and garlic, with diced smoked prosciutto and peas. The rice for the seafood risotto was undercooked to the point of being inedible, but the seafood–lobster, clams, mussels and baby calamari–was perfectly cooked in a delicate broth.

Roast chicken is the litmus test for a kitchen and Va Tutto comes through. It is juicy under its crisp skin, with lemon and rosemary, and accompanied by slices of grilled polenta. The moist grilled salmon with kale is perked up with pesto and roasted tomatoes. A thick, juicy veal chop is grilled with portobello mushrooms and comes with baby greens, simple and uncomplicated. Steak alla fiorentina is perfectly decent, with mashed potatoes and kale, tossed with raisins and pine nuts, but it is a bit greasy.

Desserts are on the homey side. The panna cotta is light and creamy, with raspberries and a ruby red sauce. The chocolate bread pudding is rich, laced with chianti-soaked dried cherries and pistachio and accompanied by a hazelnut gelato. Roast peaches with crostini and moscato zabaione were the sorts of desserts that go nicely with a glass of moscato on a summer night.

There are still kinks to be worked out, especially with the slow, unfocused service in the garden. A waiter appears at your table with a tray of dishes and looks nonplussed when it turns out no one has ordered any of them, or gives out the wrong dishes to the customers. On a night when rain kept everyone inside, the service, surprisingly, was much better.

Va Tutto is a friendly place and it delivers. I like the garden, but I am perfectly happy eating indoors, too.

Va Tutto

* 1/2

23 Cleveland Place, between Spring and Kenmare streets

941-0286

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Well priced, interesting Italian wines

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $8 to $24

Lunch: Tuesday and Sunday noon to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday 6 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 11 P.M.

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday noon to 3 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor