Like an Extra-Virgin: A Chianti Classic, Tourists Included

Does New York really need another Tuscan restaurant? Judging by the packed tables at Beppe, there are plenty of people who think so. Sitting here, it’s not hard to imagine you’re in the hills of Tuscany instead of a brand-new restaurant in the Flatiron district. The wood-beamed dining room looks like a farmhouse trattoria, with its open fireplace, terra-cotta tiles and tubs of rosemary. As a final touch of authenticity, Beppe even has its share of loud Americans, the sort that make you cringe when you’re traveling abroad. “There’s only one restaurant you need to go to in Paris!” bellowed a man at the adjacent table one evening, bringing down his fist to make the point to his three friends. “Only one. It’s …. “

The name was lost to me forever in the din.

Beppe is loud, but it’s the noise of chatter, not pounding music. It’s a warm, friendly place with a nice staff. (How often, when you’re trying to decide upon a wine, has the waiter steered you to a bottle $10 cheaper than the one you ordered because he feels it’s a better choice?) The imposing fellow patrolling the room in a white chef’s coat, a sprig of rosemary in his breast pocket, is the owner, Cesare Casella. His face is straight off a Roman coin, with an aquiline nose and a close beard. Peeking out from beneath his red trousers are red Converse high-tops. He named the restaurant after his grandfather (it’s a nickname for “Giuseppe”), the farmer whose picture adorns the menu. On the walls are black-and-white photographs of Tuscan villagers eating, preparing or selling food. Mr. Casella’s family owns Il Vipore in Lucca, where he earned a Michelin star just before he moved to New York in 1993. He became executive chef at Coco Pazzo in its heyday and soon after launched its sister restaurant, Il Toscanaccio. With Beppe, he has gone to great lengths to recreate the rustic look and flavors of Tuscany. He imports the line of products on display at the door–chestnut honey, heirloom beans and extra-virgin olive oil–and he even has an herb garden on the roof.

One night, as four of us drank a Chianti classico that might well have come from the same estate as the deep-green olive oil into which we were dipping our bread, I was reminded of a summer I had spent in “Chiantishire,” that part of Tuscany where the valleys ring with English voices and villas are filled with Londoners busily composing memoirs of their battles with Italian workmen. There, each meal began with a spread of salami, sausages and prosciutto like the one we were eating now, and we never tired of it. At Beppe, however, we didn’t stop with the cold cuts; we pressed on to Mr. Casella’s wild mushrooms on polenta crostini and his braised black cabbage (cavolo nero) spread over grilled country bread and topped with poached quail eggs. Terra-cotta dishes arrived containing a creamy cauliflower gratin (which bore no resemblance to the dreaded cauliflower cheese of my English childhood) and a terrific stewed eggplant dish topped with melted pecorino.

On this visit, our neighbors were typical of another sort of vacationing American you see in Italy: the doomed young newlyweds. They had yet to order, but already had run out of conversation. “Does your mother still go to confession?” asked the young man in desperation. (As if he cared!) She didn’t know. But if Catholicism was a distant vestige of her Italian heritage, so was that country’s food. The husband tried in vain to persuade her to try the chicken livers, the homemade sausage or even the roast chicken with escarole. She was having none of it: “I just want a salad … no wine.”

Too bad. For Mr. Casella’s food, if a trifle uneven, is bold and generous, loaded with oil, rosemary and garlic, and meant to be eaten with a good bottle of local red wine. He calls his style “cucinaruspante”–free-range cooking–which uses Tuscan ideas and ingredients from all over Italy and America. Some dishes hark back to the 16thcentury, such as Pontormo, a tossed salad of soft scrambled eggs, pancetta and greens that gets its name from Florentine Renaissance painter Jacopo Pontormo. It looks like a still life that’s been put into a blender, but the flavors and textures mingle wonderfully on the palate. You can also begin with cozze–plump, pan-roasted mussels with garlic, parsley and black pepper–or calamari marinated with thyme, flash-broiled and served with a lively beet and squash tartare. In an interesting twist, mackerel is made into a thick stew with tomatoes, onions, black olives and lemon. But some notes are off, such as the focaccia “sandwich” with octopus that arrived ice-cold on the antipasto platter, and the ramerino: bland, paper-thin tuna that had been roasted with rosemary a bit too long.

Beppe is still settling down, so the food is erratic. A risotto made with farro and topped with stringy duck stew tasted like leftovers. But an “11 herb” pasta–thin, green-flecked strands topped with a rich herb pesto–was extraordinary. A filet of John Dory was simmered in a light herb broth seasoned with fennel, lemongrass and ginger in which floated button-shaped discs of herb pasta. It was almost too restrained. Shrimp, marinated in grappa and rosemary and sautéed with chestnut honey, sounded strange but worked nonetheless. The freshest shrimp have a hint of sweetness, and the dash of honey made the point.

Just a couple of months ago in Tuscany, restaurateurs and butchers staged a mock funeral for bistecca alla fiorentina, which has been banned until the end of the year in the country because of mad-cow disease. Beppe’s menu is without a T-bone; instead, Mr. Casella plays it safe with a grilled strip steak sliced and topped with herbs. Spare ribs “Tuscan cowboy-style” were slow-cooked and falling off the bone in a thick tomato-garlic sauce with beans and broccoli rabe.

Desserts put a twist on traditional Tuscan specialties. They included a lovely plum tart with ginger sorbet and panna cotta, and a flourless chocolate cake with mascarpone and bitter orange sauce. Cactus-pear sorbet isn’t a dish you’d expect to see on the Tuscan table, even for Tuscan cowboys. It was refreshing and pleasantly acidic. But my favorites were the lemon soufflé cake with candied lemon rind and the panini con gelato, a buccellati sandwich filled with mascarpone and ice cream, like a Tuscan version of baked Alaska.

Beppe rounds out the new crop of restaurants in the Flatiron district, which also includes Craft (minimalist), Tamarind (Indian fusion), Aleutia (trendy) and Fleur de Sel (French). It’s expensive, with pastas costing around $18 and main courses from $23 to $29. But it delivers good, accessible food and some wonderful wines. Now if they’d just do something about the tourists ….

Beppe

* *

45 East 22nd Street

982-8422

Dress: Casual

Noise level: High

Wine list: Exclusively Tuscan

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $23 to $29

Lunch: Starting soon

Dinner: 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor