The Forte at Piano Due: Pasta at Another Level

Piano Due

Two Stars

151 West 51st Street

212-399-9400

Dress: Business

Lighting: Soft

Noise Level: Low

Wine List: All-Italian, boutique wines and well-known vineyards, substantial and expensive

Credit Cards:  All major

Price Range: Lunch, main courses, $18 to $26; dinner, $15 to $38

Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Only four Italian restaurants have received a star in the controversial new Michelin Guide: Babbo, Lo Scalco, Fiamma Osteria and Scalini Fedeli. So Michael Cetrulo, the owner and chef of Scalini Fedeli, dressed in impeccable whites, was looking very happy indeed as he chatted to customers on a recent night at Piano Due, the restaurant he opened just three months ago in the former Palio space in midtown.

To get to Piano Due, which is on the second floor of the Equitable Building, you take the elevator at the back of the Palio Bar. The bar looks exactly as it did when it first opened 20 years ago: Wrapped imposingly around the upper half of all four walls is a gigantic, tumultuous red mural, by Sandro Chia, of the Palio in Siena. That famous festival, which dates back to the Middle Ages, centers on the dangerous horse race that’s run around the piazza every summer. Its exuberance is replicated by the office workers and theatergoers who jostle each other around the horseshoe-shaped bar here for drinks. Tonight, the cocktail hour was apparently over, since it was rather quiet. We were officially cleared at the desk and whisked by elevator to the piano due.

The restaurant proper couldn’t be more different from the bar. It feels more like a church: Mr. Cetrulo has installed a vaulted ceiling like the one in his downtown restaurant, which is in the old Bouley space in Tribeca. The long, plain, high-roofed room is punctuated with ivory-colored pillars, and its beige walls are lined with red banquettes. Glass lamps hang between the archways, and hand-blown vases are placed here and there under the arches. It’s all very quiet— pianissimo—with thick dark-brown carpets absorbing noise: Even the piped-in strains of Billie Holiday singing “Love Me or Leave Me” are low and muted. Tables are placed far apart so that conversations can’t be overheard, and they’re set with white linen, red roses and candles in crystal holders.

As we heard Mr. Cetrulo discuss his Michelin star, my companion told me about the time his mother, a former ballerina, was dining at a fancy restaurant with Alicia Markova. “Did you know, dear,” Markova whispered across the table, “if they don’t remove the salt and pepper after the main course, they can lose their second star.”

We hadn’t yet come to that definitive moment. By way of introduction, a small plate of fried zucchini was delivered to the table. It was soggy, limp and cold—“like eating salad with your hands,” my companion said after a mouthful. Was it left over from lunch? Another night when I came here, this dish was great: thin, crisp, freshly cooked discs, lightly sprinkled with salt and vinegar.

Another gift from the kitchen arrived: a vapid seafood salad, along with a lovely selection of breads. I ordered a glass of an Umbrian chardonnay, which was delicious. The wine list is very good but pricey. One of the few respectable choices in reds under $100 was a hearty and assertive Barbera from 2001.

The menu is divided in a straightforward manner between antipasti, pasta, fish and meat. Mr. Cetrulo’s cooking is dramatic, heavy, well seasoned and classically based. Piano it is not; fortissimo is more like it. Sometimes, with all the spicing, the rich sauces, the fruits, the generous portions, the sheer excess, I felt I was eating in Renaissance times, like Catherine de Medici, a notorious glutton who ate until she “liked to burst.”

The pastas are wonderful. Hand-rolled torsione are tossed in an unctuous sauce with braised veal shank and marrow laced with orange and lemon, made creamy with mascarpone. Agnolotti filled with wild mushrooms are topped with a buttery porcini foam, and a poached egg raviolo is coated with black truffle butter. Silken strands of pappardelle come with wild game in a sauce of cream and Barolo wine.

Antipasti include a strange but rather nice, sandwich-like spiedino made with brioche bread layered with smoked salmon and buffalo mozzarella. It comes with a roasted red pepper sauce and a small salad of endive with mint and capers—baroque but good. Shrimp (overcooked, alas) arrive with white beans, tomato and rosemary on a bed of escarole with pignoli and raisins, a Sicilian-inspired mix of ingredients. Branzino also suggests Sicily, served with a black olive broth, tomato-fennel confit and caponata with zucchini batons.

The veal chop is huge, like a mallet head with a long, curving strip of bone. The meat is pink and juicy, seasoned with sage and pancetta. It’s served with thick-cut French fries arranged in a neat, crisscrossed heap like a woodpile. Black truffle and Parmigiano-glazed Savoy cabbage complete the picture. Braised pork shank with pepperoncini is heavy and rich, served with wild mushrooms over a saffron and pea risotto. Order this before the theater and you’ll miss the first act.

The desserts are superb. Layers of meringue with warm chocolate ganache and hazelnut praline are topped with white chocolate. A delicate coconut crème caramel is garnished with vanilla and lemon-marinated mango and sprinkled with macadamia nuts. A dark chocolate tart gets a crunch of peanut brittle and a caramel sauce.

The service at Piano Due is excellent. But they’d better watch out for the Michelin boys: Those silver containers for sugar need a polish, and the bathrooms could use a tidy-up. And Piano Due is expensive. A meal here is best if someone else is paying for it.