Who Knew? Another Tuscan
Was Just What We NeededSometimes you leave a restaurant with the memory of one dish that impressed you so much, you keep thinking about it days later. Such is the bucatini with cavolo nero served at 50 Carmine, a new Tuscan restaurant in the West Village. Cavolo nero is a black Tuscan kale. Here, it’s cooked in olive oil with chilies and garlic, puréed, topped with toasted bread crumbs and tossed over long strands of the hollow pasta known as bucatini. What could be simpler or more straightforward? It’s absolutely wonderful, and it embodies the taste of Tuscany.
You might think New York already has more than enough Tuscan restaurants (and the world has enough soft-focus Chiantishire films, expat memoirs about rescuing crumbling farmhouses and, of course, Tuscan cookbooks). But before you scoff, head over to 50 Carmine and taste the food that chef Sara Jenkins is cooking there. Spare ribs, braised in red wine with peppercorns and garlic, arrive falling off the bone on a mound of soft, grainy polenta: It’s an old-fashioned Tuscan dish that is said to have been served to the workmen who built the Duomo in Florence. Lamb fricassee, tender pieces of meat combined with mushrooms in a sauce thickened with egg yolks and lemon juice, is another ancient Tuscan recipe unearthed by Ms. Jenkins. When they’re available, she makes the dish with artichokes, but it was great with mushrooms, too. And as my Irish grandmother used to say when she encountered a dish she particularly liked: “You could give it to anyone.”
Ms. Jenkins comes by way of Il Buco and later Patio Dining in the East Village, where she gained a reputation for cooking food that was earthy, vital and authentic, made with the best and freshest of ingredients thanks to her regular trips to the farmers’ market. Ms. Jenkins carries on this tradition at 50 Carmine, where, for example, you can begin with a dish that doesn’t sound at all exciting: a melange of Brussels sprouts, faro, turnips and beets. In fact, it reads like the sort of thing a chef might toss out as a sop to vegetarians. But the vegetables were superb: They were pan-roasted and tossed together with crunchy grains of faro, olive oil, vinegar and parsley leaves, and topped with melted shavings of pecorino. Here you have a Thanksgiving dish that beats anything you’re likely to get at Thanksgiving.
Before 50 Carmine opened at the end of September, the premises were occupied for years by Cent’Anni, an affable Northern Italian neighborhood trattoria. The new proprietor is Paola Bottero (who, incidentally, is from Rome), who also owns Paola’s and Trattoria Rustica on the Upper East Side. Her son, Stefano Marracino, runs the restaurant. The décor is rustic and plain; much like a typical Tuscan trattoria, it’s understated and unpretentious. A long wooden bar runs almost the length of the dining room, which has a wood floor and bare brick walls. Brown paper cloths cover the tables, and there is rather harsh pinpoint lighting over some them that could easily be fixed if it were aimed just about anywhere other than directly over your head. The dining room is quite noisy but not unbearably so, and on warm evenings the doors open onto the street.
When I walk into a restaurant, there are two things I want to do right away: One is to sit down, and the other is to get a drink. But on my first visit to 50 Carmine, four of us walked in and stood by the bar-which was empty-for about 10 minutes before anyone even acknowledged our presence. (There was no sign of a bartender, either.) At last we were seated; the wine list-which has many interesting Italian boutique vintages at reasonable prices-was brought to the table, and our waiter turned out to be charming, if a trifle harrassed.
He urged us to try a special of the day: monkfish liver with balsamic glaze and bacon. But my companions balked, so we ordered other first courses instead, including a couple of salads. One was made with watercress and endive, came with a dressing made with Vin Santo vinegar, and was garnished with toasted almonds and crumbled blue cheese. The other consisted of baby arugula leaves and pomegranate seeds tossed in a dressing of shallots, mustard and tangerine juice. Both were excellent.
Our waiter returned to the table. “A gift from the kitchen,” he said, holding out a plate. “The chef wants you to try this.” It was the monkfish liver, seared and served rare with bacon and an onion-balsamic glaze. The role of toast points had been taken over by hearty slices of grilled whole-grain bread. It was delicious. “Monkfish liver is like foie gras, but it’s healthy and doesn’t ruin little ducks’ lives,” said Ms. Jenkins over the telephone later. Well, it’s sort of healthy, if you don’t count the bacon. But when it’s this good, who cares?
Calamari arrives in one piece in the small cast-iron skillet it’s cooked in. The heat has crisped it on the bottom and steamed it all the way through, making it tender. It’s covered with a layer of bread crumbs and lemon and brought sizzling to the table. Baccala is cooked in water with potatoes, celery and garlic, and is whipped together with olive oil. It’s pleasant, but I prefer the creamier texture of brandade done the French way. Ms. Jenkins turns out a duck breast (which is rare, but not too rare) that has a miraculously crisp, non-greasy skin. The trick, she said, is to put the bird in a cold pan skin-side down and render out the fat, then turn up the heat to crisp it and sear the other side.
There are 10 pastas on the menu, and they include the classic Tuscan dish of pappardelle served with a rich red wine wild-boar sauce made with tomatoes and rosemary. Macaroni is tossed with a sauce made from garlic and sautéed mustard greens and whisked with ricotta and Parmesan; it’s surprisingly bland.
There is no dessert menu, but a choice of three is offered daily. The chocolate tart is unusual. It’s a peppery, masculine dessert: a pastry shell filled with a thin layer of creamy chocolate ganache infused with chilies and lemon zest. It’s completely without adornment, just a slab on the plate (it could do with a little dressing up), but the excitement comes with the subtle, spicy slap on the back of your throat when you taste it. A tangerine olive oil cake, based on a Tuscan recipe originally made with blood oranges, is a wonderful chewy sponge. And the fruit tart is a real old-fashioned homey pie, made with piles of quince heaped six inches high in its pastry crust.
A few days after my first visit, I returned to 50 Carmine to find a group of friends-all die-hard foodies-having dinner. “You absolutely must try the monkfish liver,” they said. And over the course of the evening, each one came over to see what we were eating: 50 Carmine is that kind of restaurant.