Dining Under the Big Top, Without the Greatest of Ease

The last time I went to Osteria del Circo, I’d just been to a real circus. I’d seen a woman leap from a trapeze 40 feet in the air and spin around by her hair, which was attached to a cable. Quite a few of the women in the restaurant had hair formidable enough to have held them aloft, too, and with their candy-colored Karl Lagerfeld suits and meticulous grease paint, they could have made a fine warm-up act, riding around on tricycles and dousing each other with cocktails in the small ring.

Five years later, the crowd is less garish. It was after 10 when I arrived, and American Ballet Theater programs littered the tables (the restaurant is directly across from City Center, where the company had just begun their two-week fall season). Given the circus aspect of much of the program we’d just seen, with its warhorse pas de deux and superstars flying through the air with the greatest of ease, it was an apt setting. Beneath a trapeze that hangs from the ceiling, the Rus-sian dancer Vladimir Malakhov was presiding over a table of three beaming young ballerinas. Would he go for the three-course prix fixe for $30 (it was Restaurant Week), or, given the lateness of the hour, would he stick sensibly to a steak, for four more bucks?

Osteria del Circo, the West Side sibling of Le Cirque 2000, is owned by Sirio Maccioni, his wife, Egidiana, and their three sons, Mario, Marco and Mauro. The freshly painted dining room, designed by Adam Tihany, looks like the inside of a big top. After five years, they felt the place was ready for a face-lift, so they closed it for the summer and reopened at the end of September with new circus-motif fabric on the banquettes and more trapezes. Panels of red and yellow silk fan out across a double-height ceiling, anchored by a central pole. Bronze monkeys are perched round the room, some holding a magnum of champagne tilted over the large mahogany bar. Metal circus figures prance on a shelf above the open kitchen in the back, and now a lion stands over the coatroom with a moving tail (the signal of trouble in the cat family, so watch out).

There’s also a new chef in the kitchen. Albert Di Meglio, who was formerly sous chef at Le Cirque under Sottha Khunn, has taken over for Sandro Giuntolli, who went back to his native Montecatini to open his own restaurant. Mr. Di Meglio spent time in Italy with the Maccioni family (Mrs. Maccioni is Osteria del Circo’s executive consulting chef), who introduced him to top Tuscan kitchens as well as the legendary female cooks of Montecatini. The menu is now more firmly rooted in the Tuscan tradition and includes simple, rustic dishes like veal chop Milanese, chicken roasted under a brick, trippa alla Fiorentina and handmade pasta.

The chicken (listed on the menu as “brick-pressed free-range,” which sounds like an oxymoron) was the main course on the Restaurant Week menu. It was a good deal-including pizza margherita and dessert-so, always ready for a bargain, I ordered it. To my surprise, the pizza crust, topped in the traditional way with basil, tomato and mozzarella, was soggy. Had it been sitting around? The focaccia in the breadbasket was dry, as though it too had been out all day. (On another night it was fine, as was the pleasant flatbread brought to the table.) The chicken was juicy and had a crisp skin, and was served with fregola (Sardinian pearl couscous) and spinach. My companion insisted she’d had better at Frank on the Lower East Side the previous evening, but I thought it was pretty good. The dessert was terrific, but more about that later.

Like this initial bargain meal, the food at Osteria del Circo, I went on to discover, was as unpredictable as the behavior of a lion you’re trying to tame. I couldn’t guess what I’d be in for just by looking at the menu. Marinated tuna with white beans and red onions sounded interesting, but it was mashed together like the filling in a deli sandwich and tasted like it, too. But fritto misto was excellent, an interesting mix of smaller seafood-whitebait, bay scallops, crevettes grises and baby calamari-served with two kinds of aioli, one made with black olives and the other with fennel. The antipasto platter was a run-of-the-mill selection of mixed bruschetta (chicken liver and tomato), marinated artichokes, olives and Pecorino, along with salami and prosciutto. But the roasted fennel soup was stellar, one of those dishes you associate with the mothers of Montecatini, a dense mixture with layers of flavor that opened up with each mouthful.

Mamma Egi’s ravioli, soft pillows filled with spinach and ricotta and served with butter and leaves of sage, is a classic, and beautifully done. Not so the pappardelle with rabbit ragu, vin santo and olives, a combination that sounded great but was disappointingly dull, made with dry, stringy meat.

Veal chop Milanese, perfectly cooked under a light, crunchy coating of bread crumbs, came with a small arugula salad served in a copper casserole (a nice touch) and lemon-parsley sauce. It couldn’t have been better. But a couple of dishes were like bad hotel banquet food. Monkfish Livornese with tomato and spinach was overcooked to a mush. Boned rabbit loin was rolled and stuffed with fennel sausage and prosciutto cotto, a fussy, overwrought dish served with damp chickpea fries and a zucchini timbale.

There’s a long list of desserts from pastry chef Stephane Weber, and it is well worth investigating. Caffe latte gelato with a warm dark-chocolate tart was spectacular, as was the zucotto alla ciocolatto, a chocolate dome filled with ganache and decorated with a sheet of dark chocolate. Key-lime panna cotta had too much gelatin, but the coconut gelato was exceptional. The rum baba was fine, with rum mousseline and vanilla-pineapple chutney, but the torta caprini, a cheesecake served with cassis sorbet, was superb, made with tangy goat cheese. Bombolonccini-hot Tuscan doughnuts filled with vanilla and chocolate cream and raspberry marmalade-are justifiably a signature dish of the restaurant. Get them.

Service can be slow, with a long intermission between first and second courses. But Osteria del Circo is fun and lively. The kitchen ringmaster, however, while clearly capable of turning out great food, needs to crack his whip more often.

Osteria del Circo

120 West 55th Street

265-3636

Dress : Casual but smart

Noise Level : Fine

Wine List : Well-chosen, fairly high-priced Italian wines

Credit Cards : All major

Price Range : Main courses, lunch $19 to $28; three-course prix fixe, $26; dinner, $19 to $34, three-course prix fixe, $39

Lunch : Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner : Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; bar menu, 11:30 a.m. to closing

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor