Pace (pronounced “pah-chay”) means “peace” in Italian. But it’s a misnomer for this new Italian restaurant in Tribeca. Pace is big and noisy and bustling, accommodating all kinds of customers, from gray-haired couples in Fair Isle sweaters to rowdy young men with their shirttails hanging like half moons under the backs of their jackets.
The first thing I noticed when I walked in was a broken plate, hanging in pieces on the wall in a frame next to the reservations desk. It wasn’t like the crockery that tourists smash in Greek restaurants after a few glasses of ouzo. This was a work of art: a neoclassic female nude peacefully reclining on a bed of clouds, encircled by a yellow-and-black-striped rim and the name “Donatella” scrawled on one of the shards.
The mysterious Donatella was discovered in a flea market by Jimmy Bradley, one of Pace’s owners, who recognized it as the work of the modernist Italian architect and designer Gio Ponti, painted in the 1930’s. The plate is intended to reflect the crumbling beauty of the interior of the restaurant, designed by Jim Walrod, which is on the ground floor and basement of a 19th-century building that was once a produce market.
Pace feels like a very old trattoria in Rome. A “distressed” mirror the size of a vast wall separates the bar from the dining room. It’s been treated with acid and etched with drawings of ancient Rome (“The work of a single diamond,” murmured my companion as we walked in). These images cover the mural on the walls of the dining room too, which are lined with scuffed, torched wooden molding and tungsten sconces. The ceiling looks like weather-beaten leather, aged by decades of pipe and cigarette smoke. From the center hangs an enormous, ugly, wrought-iron chandelier bedecked with green and yellow glass globes—just waiting for some neat swordsmanship by Errol Flynn.
Mr. Bradley and his partner, Danny Abrams, also own the Red Cat (a Chelsea art-world bistro), the Harrison in Tribeca and the Mermaid Inn, a fish “shack” in the East Village. I’ve always liked their restaurants, even if they’re loud. Not only is the food good, the atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful, thanks to the friendly staff.
At Pace, which serves traditional Italian food, the attractive young staff, dressed in white shirts and ties, are not only amenable, they are well versed in the food and wine.
Occasionally when I go to a restaurant, all the dishes on the menu sound so good I want to try everything. Such is the case at Pace. Executive chef Joey Campanaro previously worked at the Harrison, and his menu is constantly changing. Prices are low, too; you can come here just for a sandwich, or a plate of pasta that runs between $10 and $14. And since most of the tables are pretty close together, the sight of your neighbor’s dish may influence your decision. When a wooden platter of glistening salumeria, bresaola, prosciutto and soppressata was set down next-door, I had to order one too, and I wasn’t disappointed.
You can also begin with a choice of “verdure”: juicy marinated mushrooms perked up with a dash of vinegar, red peppers topped with a silver strip of fresh white anchovy, amazing roasted eggplant that has not a trace of bitterness, grilled treviso topped with toasted bread crumbs and hard-boiled egg or cauliflower Sicilian style, with fennel, onion and golden raisins.
One day, grilled sardines were served as a main course with local bass; another day, they appeared with a salad made with white and green beans. Spiedini, skewers of scallops and shrimp in a crisp breading, were also delicious, with a pungent anchovy aioli.
The all-Italian wine list, put together by Peter Botti, is excellent, with a wide range of boutique and vintage wines—and an enthusiastic young sommelier to explain them. One night, I began with a glass of frascati ($8) because I wanted something light, but it received a pasting from my companion, who maintains that this wine always tastes as though ice had been melted into it. I liked it well enough, but his choice of a fruitier Venetian ribolla was worth the extra three bucks. The Frescobaldi Domino 2000 we went on to afterward was terrific—at only $49 a bottle.
As we were waiting for our main course, the men in shirttails were joined by some women friends. Among them stood a tanned, lanky blonde sporting a white miniskirt embossed with the designer’s initials so that it looked like a hand towel from a hotel. She was introduced to the rest of the table without once removing the cell phone from her ear.
“It’s the new etiquette to be on your cell phone while you’re being introduced to people,” said my companion. I pointed out that although he wasn’t on a cell phone, he was wearing his shirt untucked.
“Yes, but just so you know, mine has square corners.”
Mr. Campanaro’s pasta dishes are worthy of a top-notch trattoria in Rome. Spaghettini is cooked al dente and tossed with anchovies, hot peppers and bread crumbs. Squares of agnolotti are filled with pork and veal and served with lemon, sage and parmesan. The lemon is the secret ingredient.
It’s daring to serve pork liver in a New York restaurant. Our waiter recommended it, but I don’t think I’ll try this dish again. The liver was grilled a little too long, so it was rather dry, but it came with very good fried potatoes laced with pieces of crisp bacon, and pleasantly bitter mustard greens. The veal chop, a whopping steakhouse price of $40, was not as generous as it should be for that amount and was overwhelmed by balsamic vinegar in the sauce. But the cod was outstanding, soft and flaky, served with puffs of salt cod potato fritters and warm red pepper salad.
Larissa Raphael’s simple but stellar desserts include a wonderful, flaky pear “pizzette” tart with ice cream, and panna cotta scented with thyme and served with peaches and raspberries. A fragrant strawberry granita is served in a glass like a sundae, layered with anise mousse and almonds. The hazelnut chocolate cake, melting inside a crusty shell, comes with a creamy chocolate gelato and chocolate sauce.
The bill arrives tucked inside an Italian novel. Ours was called L’Assicuratore ( The Insurance Agent), by Lucio Mastronardi. Not a compelling title, but if only one had been around before the Donatello was dropped, perhaps Gio Ponti’s plate wouldn’t have ended up on the wall of this quirky, delightful new restaurant.
121 Hudson Street(At N. Moore) 212-965-9500
noise level: High but not unbearable
wine list: Italian, many interesting regional and boutique wines, fair prices
credit cards: All major
price range: Main courses, $11 to $40
dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. * good ** very good *** excellent **** outstanding
no star poor