Where San Domenico Alumni Serve Through Curtain Call

At 8 P.M., when most restaurants start to fill up, dining rooms in the theater district–with a few exceptions–are all but dead. The pretheater rush is over, and those nervous customers who were consulting their watches every two minutes (“The waiter is taking his time with the bill, isn’t he?” “Do we have time for coffee?”) have safely made their curtains and are now struggling not to snooze through the first act. The staff has a couple of hours to polish glasses and reset the tables before the post-theater crowd comes surging in.

But there was no lull on a recent night at Vice Versa (pronounced veechay-vayrsa), an Italian restaurant that opened just a couple of months ago on West 51st Street. It was full when four of us arrived at 8 P.M., and so was its garden–visible through glass walls that stretch from floor to ceiling at the back. Indoors, the cream-colored dining room is sleek and spacious, with a dark hardwood floor and a stainless steel bar in the front. The space is punctuated by pale green limestone columns, and niches in the walls hold large illuminated terra-cotta vases. It was designed by Franco Rosignoli, who did San Domenico in Imola, Italy, and (with Adam Tihany) the more grandiose restaurant of the same name on Central Park South, both of which are famous for their innovative Italian cooking. The owners are three Italians who met five years ago while working at San Domenico in Italy. Two of them, Franco Lazzari and Daniele Kucera, were maître d’s and Stefano Terzi, Vice Versa’s chef, was chef de cuisine.

We sat down at a table that was set with candles in long, frosted glass holders shaped like phalluses and little hedges in pots. Next to us was a table of six men who looked as though they had stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. They were celebrating a birthday. One of the guests held the stage with a loud, campy, rapid-fire monologue, snippets of which kept breaking in on our conversation. “Even secretaries have mutual funds.… She owns her own business now. She owns her own beauty parlor! … They rented a separate house for the butler.… Five very expensive crested white beach towels …”

We never did find out what happened to the five very expensive crested white beach towels, for the waiter appeared with the food. He set down a delicate crustless tart, made with rings of calamari, slivered artichokes and radicchio. It was bound together with a little flour that browned when it was sautéed and gave it a pleasant crunch. Baccalà, a creamy codfish purée, flavored with just the right amount of anchovy, garlic and olive oil, was sandwiched napoleon-style between two potato crusts and surrounded by a ring of fava beans and diced tomatoes. The combination of textures and flavors was wonderful.

A classic vitello tonnato, the dish that once graced the lunch table of every hostess with ambitions in the 60’s (only not quite like this: They hadn’t invented caper berries back then, and people thought if they used chicken breasts instead of veal no one would notice), was impeccably done, with a creamy tuna sauce on tender pink slices of veal. A pretty eggplant “turban”–familiar old flavors in a new package, one friend put it–with tomato and ricotta cheese was pleasant but bland and not in the same league.

San Domenico is justly famous for its pasta dishes, so it is hardly surprising that they should be so good at Vice Versa (and at $12 to $14 a portion, they’re considerably cheaper than at Mr. Terzi’s previous restaurant). Casoncelli, from the chef’s hometown of Bergamo, are ravioli that sit on their sides and are pressed down in the middle with the thumb, so they look like a pope’s miter. They were filled with chopped veal bound together with amaretto cookies, which gave them a hint of sweetness, and topped with brown butter, sage and strands of crisp pancetta. Strozzapreti (which the menu says means “strangled priest”), a curled pasta, was served with a rich, meaty duck sauce. Risotto consisted of flawlessly cooked rice mixed with wild mushrooms that had a heady aroma and were balanced by a touch of acidity from white wine.

Halibut crusted with tomato was excellent, flaky and moist, on mashed potatoes and spinach with a light pinot grigio sauce. Grilled salmon with spinach and sour cream, rather minimal with steamed potatoes and carrots, was perfectly cooked, but the sour cream didn’t do a lot to make the dish exciting. And, to my surprise, branzino (sea bass) with artichokes and black olives sounded great but was lackluster. Both of these dishes needed something to bring them up to the halibut’s level.

Roasted baby chicken could not be simpler, with peppers and roasted potatoes, but it was juicy and had a crisp skin, and so did the potatoes–which were terrific. A special of the day, rack of lamb, was also straightforward; the meat was exceptional, and it came with sautéed broccoli rabe and potatoes. This is not fancy cooking, but it is very well done.

The wine list is largely Italian and has a good choice of inexpensive vintages, even around the $25 range. With main courses running between $16 and $22.50, Vice Versa is not overpriced.

Of the desserts I tried, my favorite was the deep dark chocolate cake, molten, so dark and gleaming it looks almost sinister. Forget the boring apple strudel and the apple tart. The custardy banana tart garnished with a paper-thin sliver of banana was restrained but delicious.

Meanwhile, at the next table, where restraint was not the operative word, a birthday cake had arrived. That prompted the man whose monologue had continued unabated to address his audience (none of whom had uttered a word all evening so far as I could make out) on the endlessly fascinating subject of calories.

“All that low-fat food is just sugar …,” he began as we wiped our plates clean of the last traces of chocolate cake.

Vice Versa

* *

325 West 51st Street

399-9291

Dress: Casual

Noise Level: Fine

Wine List: Reasonably priced, with good Italian selections

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Dinner main courses $16 to $22.50, pretheater $29

Lunch: Beginning Sept. 14, Tuesday to Friday noon to 2:30 P.M.

Dinner: Tuesday to Friday 5 to 11 P.M., Saturday and Sunday to 11:30

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor Where San Domenico Alumni Serve Through Curtain Call