The New Squid Row? Terrific Italian on the Bowery

Don’t be put off by its name or address. Contrary to what you might think, the City Eatery at 316 Bowery is neither a soup kitchen nor a flophouse cafeteria, but rather a smart new restaurant serving terrific Italian food. Granted, by current standards (if not those of the Salvation Army), it is cheap: For just 19 bucks, you can get a three-course pre-theater dinner.

With its lipstick-red booths, somber paneled walls, terrazzo floor and hanging milk-glass globes, the place is right out of an Edward Hopper painting (albeit updated with the latest 40’s-inspired Prada fashions). You’d think it had been on this corner for the better part of the century. The food, however, is nothing that would have been served at any of the places Hopper painted, or even set foot inside.

On the night that I went, just a month after it opened, only a handful of the generously spaced tables were filled. Four of us settled into a comfortable round booth and ordered a bottle of dolcetto from the very reasonably priced wine list, which consists largely of vintages from lesser-known Italian boutique vineyards. There were no bottles of ketchup on the table, but as befits the setting, the bread arrived in a retro pie tin: house-made focaccia and crusty loaves served with olive oil instead of foil-wrapped pats of butter.

City Eatery was formerly the dining room of Astor Restaurant and Lounge. The upstairs restaurant was an elaborate Balthazar knockoff that failed. The new owners have kept the downstairs lounge (still a late-night hot spot) as it was, but they transformed the dining room, ripping out the fake Parisian brasserie stuff, retaining only the banquettes and floors. They hired restaurant consultant Ed Schoenfeld, who brought in chef Scott Conant–a young American who had worked at San Domenico and Il Toscanaccio–to redo the menu.

This was a clever move. I first tasted Mr. Conant’s food at Chianti, an odd, 60’s-style restaurant in the East 50’s, and was very impressed. If the food here is Italian, it’s contemporary American-Italian: stylish but simple, with bold, clean flavors. It’s the sort of food I like to eat, beginning with a plate of calamari and zucchini fried in a feather-light batter of milk and flour, perfectly salted and seasoned with herbs and lemon. Juicy roasted sea scallops were crusted with potatoes and served with a sauce made with porcini mushrooms and potatoes–a wonderful play of textures and tastes. Instead of plating foie gras with the usual fruit garnishes, Mr. Conant goes out on a limb and pairs it with what he calls an autumn salad–chopped quince, potatoes, frisée, favas and chives, bound together with a splash of balsamic sauce. Poached sweetbreads, tossed in crunchy garlic bread crumbs, were teamed with a mixture of escarole, mushrooms and pancetta.

Mr. Conant’s dishes manage to be both rustic and elegant at the same time. Short ribs were braised in vinegar and chicken stock and served over creamy farro risotto. One night he sent out a rich, smooth polenta topped with porcini mushrooms and white truffle shavings. I’m sure you could smell the aroma two tables away. A rather jazzy salad was made with a scoop of warm goat cheese perched like a poached egg in a nest of frisée and arugula on top of roasted sliced beets in a walnut vinaigrette. A touch of balsamic lifted it and pulled it all together. Warm lobster salad was multidimensional, its juices mixed with lemon, olive oil and chives and given a jolt from shavings of bottarga (dried mullet roe).

Halfway through dinner, I tore myself away from the table in search of a bathroom and discovered instead a small bar behind the dining room, its brightly painted ceiling shielded from nicotine stains by a layer of Plexiglas. It was full of people having a rollicking time over exotic cocktails. Down a flight of stairs was a large, dimly lit lounge decorated like a Moroccan nightclub, where a lone drinker was hunched over the bar.

Upon my return to the table, our waiter brought over the sort of dish you dream of having in some little trattoria in an Italian hillside village: baby goat roasted in an open pan so that the juices were reduced to an intense caramelized sauce, served with potatoes, fresh sweet peas, shallots and thyme with a dash of crushed red pepper. It was remarkable. And at $20, it was one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. The lamb shank was extraordinary, too: dark and burnished, its braising juices laced with red wine vinegar to cut through the fat. Mr. Conant spent time in Germany, where he learned to make the tiny, airy spätzle he serves with the shank, along with broccoli rabe and little currant tomatoes that burst in your mouth when you bite down on them. The only dish that wasn’t a success was the whole roasted fish of the day, served on a cedar plank. It was tepid and tired, as though it had spent 15 minutes lying about while the rest of the main courses were being cooked. The grilled striped bass was a better fish choice, served with fava beans, truffled potatoes and corn (the same garnish, in fact, as the foie gras).

One of Mr. Conant’s best dishes is spaghetti with braised octopus. The pasta was perfectly al dente, finished in the pan with the sauce for the octopus, made with capers, tomato and caramelized onions. And with all the second-rate macaroni and cheese I’ve been having lately (one or two bites and you can feel it going down like lead), Mr. Conant’s version is a revelation. It wasn’t made with heavy cheese sauce (or topped with foie gras, as I had choked down the other day at Hudson Cafeteria), but used a light, tangy ricotta salata instead, tossed with short, hand-cut macaroni, tomatoes and oregano.

Desserts include a delicate panna cotta made with coconut and served with a sharp mango compote. The chocolate cake was moist, deep and dark; apple crisp got its crunchy texture from a streusel topping. Chocolate pistachio torte arrived with a gianduja ice cream, rich with chocolate and hazelnuts.

As you eat, you can look out the dining room windows onto a row of bushes that reflect the bright blue glow of the restaurant’s neon sign. The Bowery may have lost the trees that gave it its name a couple hundred years ago, but this neighborhood, which has some of the most interesting buildings in the city, is surely on its way back. With City Eatery, there’s food worth contemplating, too.

City Eatery

* *

316 Bowery (at Bleecker Street)

253-8644

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Extensive Italian selection, well priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $11 to $20

Brunch: Saturday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. To 4 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday to Wednesday, 6 p.m. To midnight; Thursday, 6 p.m. To 1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. To 2 a.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor