At first glance, Poetessa could be just another of those convivial, pub-like East Village restaurants that serve cheap but run-of-the-mill food. It has a large bar, candlelit wooden tables, a pressed-tin ceiling, red leather chairs and a murky oil painting of Venice on the wall, along with framed old family photographs and old mirrors. The staff wears black.
But instead of the day’s specials, Robert Browning’s “Pippa’s Song” is chalked on a blackboard in the front room: ” … God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” Books of poetry by Charles Bukowski are stacked in the bathroom; Czeslaw Milosz and Jorie Graham volumes sit above the bar.
The chef, Pippa Calland, is American and named after Browning’s poem. After she abandoned graduate school, where she was studying English literature, she worked as a chef for 10 years in Buffalo and Manhattan, then went to Italy to continue her cooking education. Upon her return, she made her reputation as a chef first at Pino Luongo’s Coco Pazzo in Philadelphia and then at Le Madri in Chelsea.
Her food takes its inspiration from the rustic cuisine of trattorias in the North of Italy. Just taste the polenta and dream you’re in Tuscany; it’s enriched with mascarpone and topped with a wonderful, gooey mess of roasted mushrooms and Taleggio cheese sprinkled with white truffle oil. Chicken livers, sautéed whole with pancetta, balsamic vinegar and fried sage, are plump and pink, a decadent pile heaped in a large white bowl. They’re the best chicken livers in the neighborhood-except for the chopped liver at the Second Avenue Deli, of course.
The kitchen, housed in the restaurant’s cramped basement, makes use of the best and freshest of ingredients. The buffalo mozzarella is irreproachable, the farmers’-market greens superb. So is the prosciutto made from Berkshire pigs, served with a spicy fig mustard and young pecorino toscano.
“Cheers!” said our waiter as he filled our glasses with wine. In this setting, you’d expect to be given thick tumblers. Instead, the wine is poured into large, thin-rimmed goblets that must surely drive up the kitchen’s overhead a digit or two. (Just getting them up and down those narrow basement stairs in one piece is a feat in itself.) The wine list, almost entirely Italian, is excellent, with many unusual choices, including bottles that are hard to obtain in the liquor store. A dolcetto from Sandrone was a find at $34.
Poets with delicate digestions can begin dinner with a salad of poached shrimp, blood oranges and avocado served on bibb lettuce. There’s something 50’s about the look of this simple dish, which comes with a mayonnaise lightly spiced with Vietnamese chilies. Each ingredient speaks for itself. Arugula salad is taken to another level, tossed with pomegranate molasses and seeds, candied walnuts and shavings of goat’s-milk cheese. Fried calamari are also a cut above the norm, pearly tendrils coated with an almost invisible batter and served in a white paper cone with fried parsley, a creamy lemon aioli and a fresh tomato sauce.
There are over half a dozen pastas on the menu, ranging from spaghetti and meatballs for $10 to bucatini with lobster for $18. Orchiette with Manila clams, pancetta and broccoli rabe is cooked just right, but the dish is a tad salty and oily to boot. As for the spaghetti carbonara, perhaps it should be called something else for those of us expecting a sauce made with cream. The chef’s version consists of roasted red onions, olive oil and Guanciale bacon in an egg suspension with pecorino romano cheese. No cream. It’s good, but a bit of a letdown.
“Today, our special is a rib-eye roasted in the oven with garlic and rosemary,” said our waiter. “It’s $34. I wanted you to know that, because the last table was very upset at the price.”
No wonder the people were cross: The steak was huge, chewy and dull. The price of a thick-cut grilled veal chop-a dish you find frequently on menus in Tuscany-would certainly upset Poetessa’s customers. So Ms. Calland uses a center-cut pork chop instead. It’s brined in cider to keep it moist and grilled medium rare, served with roast potatoes flecked with rosemary. This is a humungous piece of meat, full of flavor and hardly overpriced at $18. But it could feed two people generously, and eating your way through the whole thing in one go is a bit of an effort.
The snapper is wonderful, served with a nice, crusty skin in a rich tomato shellfish broth with Manila clams and mussels. I also love the silky braised Colorado lamb shank with gigante beans, leaves of Tuscan kale and a gremolata made with Meyer lemons.
Desserts include a molten chocolate cake that is more lumpen than molten (I tried it twice, and it was overcooked both times), though the warm apple sour-cream cake-jazzed up with a cranberry compote and cinnamon gelato-is first-rate.
Poetessa has two dining rooms. The back one is quieter, unless you happen upon a table for 10, as I did one night-all young women drinking champagne. The restaurant is romantic, a terrific place for a date, with a great deal of funky charm. Looking around the room on a recent night, I saw so many couples holding hands or gazing into each other’s eyes that I could have sworn it was Valentine’s Day.