“Try these,” our beautiful, dark-haired Albanian waitress said as she set down a bowl of hard, peppery biscuits on the table. They looked like miniature pretzels.
“Aren’t they good?” she asked. They were. Called taralli, they come from Sicily and go nicely with a glass of wine and some of the green Nocellara olives, also from Sicily, that were heaped in a giant glass bowl on the counter behind me.
A few minutes later, our waitress returned to the table with plates of crostini and grilled vegetables. She was unaware that the young cooks working in the small open kitchen at the back and the waiters picking up orders had stopped in their tracks to cast longing looks in her direction. “They’re all mad for her!” whispered my companion.
Bellavitae—the name blends the Latin phrases for “beautiful life” and “beautiful vines”—is a delightful little trattoria hidden away on Minetta Lane in the Village next to a theater playing, appropriately, a restaurant-themed musical comedy called Five Course Love. The long dining room is warm and welcoming; it has a wooden ceiling lined with beams, bare brick walls, a wood-burning brick oven and a floor made from wide wooden planks that could have come from an 18th-century farmhouse. Photographs of Italian vintners, honey makers, rice farmers and olive growers hang on the walls next to small, lozenge-shaped Venetian lamps.
There are two bars, one in the front of the restaurant for drinking, and a marble bar in the back where people can eat. One night, unable to get a table, two of us sat at the bar and watched a young woman expertly working a red prosciutto slice. The prosciutto was like silk, and it went wonderfully with figs and a wild arugula salad sprinkled with fresh ricotta. Afterwards, we shared a tagliata, a sliced steak served with a robust green sauce—a good buy at $19.
The restaurant’s owner, Rolando Beramundi, is an importer of Italian products who supplies many of the city’s top restaurants. Many of those goods are for sale here: olive oils (from $15 to $35 a bottle); vinegars; pastas; baldo, carnaroli and arborio rices ($4 to $5.50 a bag); acacia and chestnut honeys; and mostarda (preserved fruits). There’s even a 100-year-old balsamic vinegar for $500, just waiting for that impulse purchase by a customer on his second glass of the house grappa.
The wine list is entirely Italian, with over a hundred bottles and many unusual choices from small family-owned vineyards. If you order wine by the glass, it’s served in a small carafe—a nice touch.
The menu is very short, with just three pasta dishes and five meat and fish dishes. Bellavitae is as much a wine bar as a restaurant, so there are lots of small plates meant for sharing and for accompanying wine. They include bruschetta, chicken liver crostini, fried meatballs and arancini, tiny rice balls laced with tomato and mozzarella. Crostini topped with a mixture of green and black olives and anchovies are a bartender’s dream. They’re very, very salty, causing an immediate raging thirst, and even the sprinkling of chopped egg on top did nothing to ameliorate this. Radishes and fennel en pinzimonio (with an olive oil and lemon for dipping) were meager, and the radishes weren’t especially fresh. The grilled vegetables—eggplant, zucchini and peppers—were sprinkled with a lovely olive oil but needed herbs, salt and lemon to perk them up. I preferred the caponata, which had more character.
Our waitress urged me to try the spaghetti cacio e pepe (literally, “cheese and pepper”). I’d come back for this dish alone. So simple: spaghetti cooked perfectly al dente and tossed in a creamy sauce made from sharp pecorino Romano cheese and plenty of cracked black pepper. Cannellini beans topped with bottarga di tonno were also delicious, coated with a wonderful olive oil.
If you’re curious about the oils, you can begin dinner with a tasting of regional selections. This is a restaurant catering to the ingredient-conscious food lover, after all. You can also sample three kinds of polenta—white, yellow and whole grain—shaped into triangles and grilled. For those who think of grilled polenta as a good doorjamb, this trio will come as a revelation.
I also liked the spiedini of fresh swordfish cut in chunks and threaded on skewers with lemon, fennel and tomatoes. Fritto misto was light and crunchy, made with calamari, celery, lemon and caper berries from Salina. Italian pork sausages, stewed in a rich tomato sauce laced with fresh beans, were also good, although I would have liked more beans.
Desserts included the last of the summer’s peaches served with whipped cream and a baked pear with ice cream. The pear would have been better warm. There is also a sumptuous gelato affogato (literally “drowned ice cream”) served in a tall glass and swamped with espresso, and the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had.
Not surprisingly, it’s almost as difficult to get a reservation at this unassuming little trattoria as it is at Babbo a few blocks up, where Mario Batali uses many of the fancy products on sale here. Some tables at Bellavitae are set aside for walk-ins, so on my first visit I took a chance and showed up at five minutes to 6, the hour of opening. The staff, dressed in black tops and rust-red aprons, were lined up at the front of the dining room, ready for the onslaught. Within the hour, the place was full. For Bellavitae is something of a rarity in New York: It’s a genuinely friendly, laid-back neighborhood restaurant where the food is simple, the prices are low and the wine is good. Even in Italy, it would be a find.