Rustic Italian Dining Minus The Charming Country Trattoria

Lunch was flawless. It was the sort of meal you dream of finding in Italy, where ingredients always seem to taste so much better than they do back home. Two of us shared four small plates: beef carpaccio with pears and black-pepper pecorino, pizzette topped with truffled Robiola cheese and prosciutto, salmon cured in limoncello (the Italian liqueur) with horseradish mascarpone and pickled red onion, and a steaming bowl of mussels, cockles and clams in a Viognier and garlic broth. After finishing up with chocolate cake in passion-fruit sauce, we walked the meal off at Saks.

For Moda is not, alas, in some rustic Italian country inn, but in the back of the lobby of the aptly named Flatotel. This anonymous, modern gray stone-and-glass building on 52nd Street, could just as easily be in Rotterdam or Antwerp. A glass wall divides the restaurant from the hotel lobby, where globe-shaped lamps float like clouds from the ceiling, but the light they cast is oddly flat, making the place look as bleak as an airport lounge.

The restaurant space has no trump card to offer in the form of a view, a 30-foot ceiling or even a glassed-in atrium. The design of the dining room is stark and minimal: a plain mirror, a skylight, high-topped booths and large dark wood tables. The tables are too big for intimate conversation, and they’re certainly way too big when the restaurant is full, as it was one night with office parties-six to 12 at a table, and displaying the usual raucous bonhomie of such occasions. Perhaps to make up for the lack of windows, designer Glen Coben-who worked with David Rockwell before forming his own firm-has covered the back wall with flickering votive candles at night and, by day, tiny vases of white tulips. Either way, it’s a charming sight, though at lunchtime the recessed ceiling lights are turned up so high a surgeon could operate.

Given the cutting-edge design details of the dining room, you’d expect a trendy menu to match. But executive chef Frank Whittaker, who is from Tra Vigne in the Napa Valley and who has also worked at Park Avenue Café with David Burke, has his sights focused elsewhere. His cooking is rustic Italian by way of California, not re-invented exactly but pushed one step further. It has the big-hearted generosity of Italy, beginning with the plate that’s set down on the table when you arrive. Chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, marinated olives and pickled lupini beans are served along with a selection of crusty rolls and a small bowl of olive oil mixed with butter and sprinkled with sea salt. You could almost make a meal of all this while reading the menu, which is printed on small, folded squares of paper.

As a take on the tradition of primi and secondi piatti, the menu is divided into “small plates” and “big plates.” Pasta comes in two sizes (and one, the wild mushroom–leek ravioli with porcini-truffle fonduta, even comes in three). You can also make a meal by combining small plates with side dishes, such as polenta with truffle oil and gorgonzola or sautéed bittergreens with pepperoncini chilies.

The small plate of artichokes was so good I wished it came in a big-plate size. The artichokes were cooked three ways: quartered and braised in lemon and olive oil with their stems intact (the stems, which so often are discarded by cooks, are almost as delicious as the hearts), baked and topped with roasted tomato, and fried crisp. They come set out on a long white plate and seasoned with lemon and basil. A warm seafood salad arrived with a giant prawn crowning a mixture of shrimp, squid and pepperoncini chilies with fingerling potatoes in a lemon-garlic sauce. An arugula and wild-mushroom salad was the setting for a soft polenta cake topped with melted fontina and roasted tomato. The only clinker was the foie gras (which was mushy), served in a balsamic, butter and sage sauce and topped with leathery pumpkin gnocchi. Foie gras needs fruit.

The grilled quail was perfectly cooked and juicy, with a black-pepper fig jam and creamy white polenta. The branzino, however, was a tad overcooked but very fresh, and was served with olives, charred tomato and fennel gratin along with a bed of arugula, all of which were underseasoned.

For years Americans used to cook pork until it was thoroughly dried out because they were afraid of trichinosis. Now that the disease no longer appears to be a threat, chefs everywhere are serving pork medium or even rare. So when the waiter asked one of my friends how he liked his pork cooked, my friend replied that he’d leave that decision to the chef. Alas, the chef (or whoever was on the grill station) likes it very rare indeed. Even I found the meat, which had a nice fennel crust, too raw. But its accompaniments, braised red cabbage and spicy sweet potato, made up for it. The crispy roast chicken with sage, on the other hand, was perfect, with lovely red and yellow peppers in an aged balsamic sauce and mashed potatoes flavored with Parmigiano Reggiano.

Moda’s wine list consists of about 60 bottles and sticks to Italian and Californian, with a couple of whites from New Zealand. It’s adequate without being terribly exciting, and it’s moderately priced.

Desserts included a wedge of a remarkable, smooth espresso semi-freddo coated in a chocolate fonduta on almond crisp, decorated with curly flakes of chocolate. The lemon-custard cake with raspberry sauce was overly sweet, decorated with spun sugar. But the panettone bread pudding, a subtle concoction rich with eggs and roasted banana custard, was superb. So was the bittersweet chocolate cake in its scarlet pool of passion-fruit sauce.

Mr. Whittaker’s food, although not always flawless, is honest, fresh and inventive. Eat it and imagine you’re not in the Flatotel, but a sun-dappled Italian courtyard.

Moda **

Flatotel, 135 West 52nd Street

887-9880

Dress: Business Noise Level: High Wine List: Mostly Italian and Californian, moderate prices Credit Cards: All major Price Range: Lunch, main courses, $14 to $25; dinner, main courses, $17 to $28 Lunch: Monday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday to 10:30 p.m.

* good ** very good *** excellent **** outstanding no star poor