Seasoned Chef Swaps Boulud For Reliable, Rustic Italian

051506 article moira Seasoned Chef Swaps Boulud  For Reliable, Rustic ItalianWhen I called to make a reservation, I was brought up short for a second when a male voice answered “A Voce. Dante speaking.”

Dante Camara (not Alighieri) is the maître d’ at A Voce (which means “word of mouth”), a new Italian restaurant near Madison Square Park. The team behind this venture is impressive. Chef Andrew Carmellini cooked for six years at Café Boulud, where he earned a Michelin star and two James Beard awards (including being named best chef in the city last year). The sommelier, Olivier Flosse, is also from Café Boulud, as is Mr. Camara. And the pastry chef, April Robinson, worked at Alain Ducasse and Café Gray.

A Voce is on the ground floor of an office building on 26th Street. It’s a very noisy place because it’s all hard surfaces—or as one friend put it, “The only soft surface here is us.” The dining room, done up in chocolate and vanilla with stainless steel, is minimally decorated in a modern, corporate style, with a maple floor, moss-green, leather-topped tables and swiveling leather Eames chairs. It feels like a staff cafeteria for the upper echelon.

Picture windows down one side of the room offer a view onto the street where, come summer, tables will be set out on a piazza landscaped with lemon trees and plants in tubs. The additional seating, enough for 80 to 100, should be a saving grace for A Voce.

Lining one wall of the L-shaped dining room is an art installation, backlit with a pink glow, constructed out of more than a dozen towers of Lincoln Log–like blocks. A blue painting that looks like a computer screensaver decorates another wall.

At our request, Dante sat us in a corner where it was somewhat quieter than the main section. But the overhead lighting here was bright enough for interrogation. It couldn’t be turned down, he explained apologetically, because it was controlled by a computer. “The lights don’t dim until 10 o’clock.”

Why?

We turned our attention to the wine list. It’s superb, ranging in price from $18 a bottle to $9,500 for a bottle of 1947 Pomerol for that special occasion. Half the bottles are Italian; the rest are from France and America. Forty percent are less than $80. The waiters, dressed in bright blue shirts, are as enthusiastic, confident, knowledgeable and interested a group as I’ve come across in a while.

Mr. Carmellini cooked mainly French food at Café Boulud, but he’s not new to Italian cuisine. He worked for two years at San Domenico and spent a year studying in Italy. At A Voce, he’s serving straightforward, rustic Italian dishes such as tripe, braised lamb shank, grilled pork chop and chicken cacciatora. There are also novelties, like duck meatballs with dried cherry sauce and ramps with spaghetti. The menu is printed daily and reflects the seasonal produce available at the market.

If you go to the Union Square greenmarket these days, you’ll see chefs lining up to buy ramps—small wild leeks that are piled up in gritty heaps. These ramps, to paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse, cause the sap to rise in a chef’s veins. They have a subtle, garlicky taste, and Mr. Carmellini tosses them with strips of speck in a bowl of spaghetti coated with a creamy sauce of Parmesan and olive oil. This dish couldn’t be simpler or more delicious.

The duck meatballs are on the level of some of the fancier stuff Mr. Carmellini turned out at Café Boulud. They’re soft and satiny, mixed with foie gras and pork, and served on puréed celery with a dark cherry sauce. Quail saltimbocca is so tender under its crisp skin you don’t need the steak knife that’s offered. It’s rare, on a bed of lentils, with a rich fig sauce. Duck glazed with fennel and honey is sliced in meaty, pink pieces and garnished with duck sausage, chopped sugar snap peas and a bracing olive sauce.

Much of the food at A Voce is good without knocking your socks off. Grilled octopus was tender and nicely charred, with peperonata, tomatoes, lemon and tiny pieces of chorizo. Steak tartare is seasoned with truffle oil and mixed with walnuts. It arrives Italian-style, with Parmesan and arugula, and it was pleasant but bland. The squid-ink risotto, topped with a cuttlefish stuffed with shrimp, was bland too, although perfectly cooked. But tripe with borlotti beans and spring vegetables was excellent, light and clean-tasting. I also liked the rigatoni with broccoli rabe, chickpeas and tiny, spicy pork meatballs in a subtle tomato sauce.

Halfway through dinner, the lights dimmed. I checked my watch: 10 o’clock. But by now the restaurant was so noisy we had to shout to make ourselves heard.

One of my friends said he’d once sat next to Charlton Heston in a Hollywood restaurant. “When he spoke,” my friend said, “his voice sounded as though the sky had opened and the tablets had been given to Moses.”

A Charlton Heston voice is required here.

Desserts are uneven. A ring of pineapple, topped with ice cream, is far too sweet. Lemon sorbet, on the other hand, is pleasantly tart. Tiramisu, served in a brandy snifter and sprinkled with shavings of chocolate, is cloyingly sugary and doused with too much liquor. Chocolate cake isn’t the molten kind but a hearty sponge, subtly flavored with amaretto.

At A Voce, Mr. Carmellini is serving some very good food, but I won’t come back until I can eat outside under the lemon trees, and have a conversation sotto voce.