Tappo Brings Quirkiness Back to the East Village

There is no sign hanging outside Tappo in the East Village. Instead, you’ll find two antique wooden toys–a green delivery van and a red French fire truck with “Pompier” emblazoned on it–displayed in one window, a couple of wheels of Parmesan in the other. The effect is oddly comical, like those Little Italy storefronts where loaves of bread or statues of the Virgin Mary belie the true business conducted inside.

Tappo is a quirky place, the most un-New York of New York restaurants. It doesn’t sell toy trucks, but it does sell Italian cheese, among other things. The blast of Arab music that greeted me on a recent evening made me wonder if the place was attempting to be a spinoff of Layla, the Middle Eastern restaurant in Tribeca. But there were no belly dancers from Queens here, just a refrigerated display case of exotic seafood and meats: steak, duck breast, neat rows of baby cuttlefish, giant shrimp, langoustines, mackerel and a big pink fish with thick lips and a sour expression. Prosciutto and sausage hung from hooks on the walls; vinegars and olive oils were lined up underneath. The hostess was checking the reservation book by a small, slate-topped bar, upon which sat an espresso machine and a collection of half-empty wine bottles. She led us into the dining room, past a large painting of a puzzled-looking goat that had the words “goat cheese” scrawled in red across its stomach. We were seated at one end of a long refectory table and quickly began dipping chunks of country bread into a bowl of green olive oil. The music progressed up the Mediterranean coast from Morocco to the Italian Riviera, with breathy pop songs from the 70’s.

Four vacant stores were combined to create Tappo’s cavernous dining rooms, which have bare-brick walls, concrete floors and a wood-beamed ceiling. One room houses a tall cabinet whose shelves are lined with wine bottles. It feels like a country trattoria, bustling, casual and friendly. The rustic tables, some of them made from the wood of old barns, are set with votive candles, tulips and heavy cutlery. Overhead bulbs cast a surprisingly soft glow over the room, which is hung with red damask curtains drawn across white lace. The two magnificent Chinese stone dogs in the bathroom would make a member of the Taliban reach for a hammer with a yelp of joy. A gleaming new open kitchen is visible through a brick archway flanked by a sliding aluminum door. You can eat at the counter, where a cheerful man with a mustache–whose girth could only be that of a chef–is in command. Filippo Paoloni, who is from Rome, previously worked at Il Buco. He was lured here by Tappo’s owners, Judy McCutcheon (who was formerly at Casanis) and Armin Bellova, who met Mr. Paoloni when they were also working at Il Buco, the antique-shop-cum-restaurant on Bond Street. (One night at Il Buco, when we were waiting among the crowd at the door to give someone our name, my husband asked a staff member if he was in charge. “I think the only person in charge is God,” he replied.)

Like Il Buco, Tappo serves rustic Mediterranean cooking from up and down the coast. The name is Italian for “cork,” and the restaurant has more than 130 bottles on its list, mostly from Italy, but also from Southwestern France, Spain and even a few from Lebanon and Croatia. The wine service here is refreshingly different from the experiences I’ve had in grander restaurants recently. The other week, a sommelier poured a droplet of wine into each glass and emptied it out before we were even allowed to taste, in case there were any impurities in the glass (a relatively new but increasingly common practice). Here, when we asked our adorable French waitress which Italian wines she recommended, she replied, “Chianti classico is the most popular.” (I did not comment that McDonald’s is the most popular restaurant in America, but that does not–in my view, at least–make it the best.)

Finally, she threw up her hands like a maid in a Feydeau farce. “I’m French! I only know French wines!” she said, before running off to “bring the woman who buys the wines.”

At Tappo, it’s like being served by a group of jolly kids as they hectically scrape food off the plates and stack them up, boarding-house style. But they are so charming and attractive, you don’t mind a bit.

The menu is divided into two parts, with 20 small, tapas-like dishes, most of which are Italian, and a selection of daily main-course specials. At $28, delicious anguillas (baby eels) are the most expensive thing on the menu; they look like sizzling spaghettini, loaded with oil and garlic in a terra cotta dish. They are harder and harder to get nowadays–largely, I’m told, because they are in great demand in Japan. Grilled baby octopus was also good: charred, oiled chunks served with a tabbouleh salad loaded with parsley and mint. The sardines, breaded and stuffed with spinach, pine nuts and pecorino were lackluster. But the tender, garlicky snails swimming in butter and accompanied by peasant-bread croutons brushed with olive oil were as plump and meaty as they were copious. Normally you’d expect to get a mere half dozen, served in shells (alas, not their own). I guess it’s been a particularly rainy year.

The mackerel we’d seen in the display case arrived chopped into a tartare, served with peppery leaves of baby watercress. Tomato and pillows of mozzarella di bufala came with puntarelle (dandelion greens) that were a lovely, bitter foil for the cheese, but the dish would have been better had the tomatoes not been cold from the refrigerator. A soft mound of polenta was topped with a ragu made with rather dry ground lamb. But the mushroom soup was deep, earthy and thick, like eating pure essence of mushroom.

Mr. Paoloni’s wife, Maria Gentile, makes the pasta, which changes daily. Wide, flat, pappardelle-like noodles came with an unusual and inspired sauce made with diced beets, peas and pancetta. Main courses were simple and hearty, served with red bliss potatoes and haricots verts. A casserole of roasted goat was a bit fatty but with good flavor, and a whole Mediterranean sea bass was perfectly cooked, served on the bone.

There are only four desserts, all of which arrived dusted with confectioner’s sugar. They included a rather heavy chocolate-ricotta tart, a flourless chocolate cake that tasted chalky from cocoa powder, and a pleasant pear tart with a pastry shell that was a little soggy. By far the best was a wonderful little panna cotta that gave a delicate quiver when I put my spoon into it.

When I paid the bill without opening the leather folder to see what was inside, our young waiter asked, “Do you need change?” It’s this sort of sweet, almost naïve approach that makes Tappo such a charmer. I hope it stays that way. Good food, good wine and a delightful atmosphere. What more could you want?

Tappo

*

403 East 12th Street

505-0001

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Quite high but reasonable

Wine list: Comprehensive and wide-ranging

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $14 to $26

Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 6 p.m to midnight; Sunday, 5 p.m. to midnight.

Lunch: Beginning in April

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor