Bold and Brazen Italian, Not to Mention the Food

“Just when you think you’ve mastered the Italian menu, along comes one like this,” said my companion, reading down the list of dishes. “Bitter greens with sapa, elicoidali with cauliflower, tuna belly with guanciale.…”

“It’s Roman food from 2 A.D.,” said our waiter. “There’s a glossary on the back of the menu.”

The glossary takes up an entire page. For Lupa (named for the she-wolf who’s the symbol of Rome) is not just another Italian trattoria serving carpaccio and fried calamari. The team behind it includes Babbo’s Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich, along with Jason Denton of ‘ino (former manager of Pó) and chef Mark Ladner. And since this small restaurant opened a year ago, it’s been tough to get a table. They only take reservations for a third of the tables, and if you come hoping to sit in the front room, good luck if you’d like to have dinner while you’re still sober enough to taste the food. The first time I showed up at Lupa, the manager cheerfully told us the wait for a table was between one and two hours, “so have a drink at the bar!” As Bridget Jones would say, “Thanks blurry much!”

On a night of violent rainstorms I tried again, hoping the weather would have deterred other customers and there wouldn’t be much of a wait. When I called at the last minute, a man’s voice said, “I don’t see any problem. Come right over.”

We were there in five minutes. But there was a problem. “The wait will be about an hour,” said the hostess, all smiles. “Have a drink at the bar.” She looked incredulous when I told her of my telephone conversation and called over one of the owners. He was equally incredulous. “There’s only one other guy here who would have answered the phone,” he said. “And he would never have told you that. He knows this restaurant!”

Perhaps it was because I had just seen Fully Committed , the play about customers who lie, cheat and bribe to get a table at a four-star restaurant, but I was beginning to feel just the teeniest bit paranoid.

Yet Lupa is a friendly, warm-hearted place. Only five minutes later, the owner came back and showed us to a table in the back room, where we sat, slightly shellshocked, trying to figure out what tacchino osso buco could possibly be (“turkey veal shank”?). The waiter had given the wine list to me, not the man I was with. Had I been recognized? Whatever happened to the good old days when women were handed menus without prices?

The restaurant consists of three small rooms set with bare wood tables. The front, where the bar is, has red brick walls with arches and a terra cotta tiled floor. The middle room looks like an 18th-century roadhouse, with walls painted ocher and hung with high carriage lamps; a wrought-iron chandelier is suspended from the ceiling and a row of pickle jars lines a bench at the back. Beyond is an even smaller room with a skylight. The place resounds with chatter and bouncy disco music, and there’s not a suit or tie in sight. Why is Lupa so popular? The food is bold, vibrant and gutsy, and it’s cheap to boot. This Roman fare is ancient and modern, not just 2 A.D. And it’s not for the timid, beginning with the thick squares of oiled, salted focaccia placed on the table with a bowl of spiced olives swimming in oil.

A salad of bitter greens comes with a dressing made with sapa, the juice of macerated grapes mixed with sugar, red wine vinegar and olive oil. The subtle sweetness is a good foil for the greens. Fresh sardines are marinaded in a little sugar and lemon juice and served with cracked wheat salad.

It’s not surprising that the pasta at Lupa should be so good. The bavette cacio & pepe could not be simpler: linguine with olive oil, pecorino and black pepper. It was great. So was the penne, tossed with toasted walnuts and bottarga di muggine, a salty dried mullet roe. The last thing I would think of ordering in a restaurant is turkey. But tacchino osso buco turned out to be a leg braised like a veal shank in white wine and topped with gremolada made with chopped parsley, preserved lemon rind and sea salt. The gremolada brought the whole dish together, and the turkey was as juicy and moist as I’ve ever tasted. The arista, made with pork that had been brined with mustard seeds and fennel before it was roasted, was exceptionally tender as a result, and the richness of the meat was complemented with braised dates and mulled wine. On a less esoteric note, the saltimbocca at Lupa was hardly a dainty dish, but rather an enormous helping of thin slices of pounded veal seasoned with sage under a layer of seared prosciutto and served with a marsala sauce.

You don’t care what’s inside fritto misto as long as it’s crisp and the batter is light. But I love sweetbreads. This fritto misto would have felled a Roman senator, had he finished it: a huge pile of fried fennel, lemon slices, onions and lamb sweetbreads, all a bit greasy but well-seasoned and served on brown paper. Fried potatoes, also on brown paper, were rather gummy under their golden skins.

The guanciale that had baffled us turned out to be rendered pig jowl. It’s not so bad if you think of it as bacon; it’s very similar. A thin, crispy slice comes on top of the tuna belly that is braised in mussel broth and served on a bed of mustard greens with mussels in their shells. Feeling queasy? I hope not, because it was a terrific combination of textures and tastes.

There is a small selection of desserts. One could not be plainer: chunks of chocolate served with a tart orange marmalade. You take a bite of each. Heaven. Another was poached plums on a mound of mascarpone. The waiter spooned their cooking syrup carefully on top and it spread out in a beautiful scarlet pool, scented with clove and cinnamon. The panna cotta was a light, delicate concoction but prissy compared with the tartufo, which was the size of a baseball, covered with a chocolate and hazelnut coating and a rich gianduia sauce. At a nearby table was a sad sight: a young couple, probably newly married, each battling a tartufo, swilling them down with glasses of water in silence. What, I wondered, would their lives be like 30 years from now? Most likely they’ll have gone their separate ways. But with any luck, Lupa will still be around.

Lupa

* * 1/2

170 Thompson Street

982-5089

Dress: Casual

Noise level: High but bearable

Wine list: Excellent and well priced, with Italian boutique wines

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses lunch $9 to $14; dinner $10 to $17

Lunch: Noon to 2:45 p.m., Seven days

Dinner: 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Seven days

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor