Just Off the Hamptons Jitney, Elio’s Crowd Ventures South

Every time I walk around Tribeca it’s more and more posh. It’s hard to believe that, not long ago, Bouley was a lonely outpost among the reeking fish and cheese warehouses on Duane Square, a “destination” restaurant that gave its Upper East Side customers the thrill of adventure with a $20 cab ride to an unknown neighborhood. Now a fancy Italian restaurant from New Jersey has moved into Bouley (which moved to a building a block away), the warehouses have become chichi antiques stores, and Roc, another fancy Italian restaurant, has opened around the corner.

If Roc (which displaced the Chinese take-out at Duane and Greenwich streets three months ago) feels more like a chic, clubby Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side–specifically Elio’s–it’s not surprising. Elio Guaitolini is co-owner with Rocco Cadolini, who was his mâitre d’ for 10 years. And even if there weren’t already a Rocco in the Village, the fact that it’s called “Roc” and not “Rocco” tells you a lot about it. “Roc” certainly doesn’t sound like the sort of place where you’d find red check tablecloths, posters of Naples or candles in Chianti bottles. It’s a logo. And both the restaurant and the logo were designed by Viromare, a young team of architects from Sorrento. They have cleverly mixed the old with the new in this 1875 red-brick warehouse that was once a pencil factory, complete with cast-iron arches. Modern and antique vases, pottery and figurines from Sicily, art by Gaetano Pesce and plain mirrors are artfully placed in alcoves around the room, which has a small bar in the front, white walls and dark wainscoting. Steel lampshades shaped like flying saucers hang from the ceiling (they’re from 1940’s train stations) and an antique chandelier dominates a back corner. Candles flickering under frosted lampshades cast a flattering glow over the generously spaced tables, which are set with white cloths. The effect is elegant and seductive. In this setting the man and woman next to us looked like the perfect photograph of a couple having dinner in a restaurant.

We consulted the wine list, which has a large selection from Campania, and ordered a bottle of Greco di Tufo. The waiter put down a glass of grissini–thin, herb-flecked breadsticks scented with a fruity olive oil–on the table, along with a basket of focaccia and bread. The grissini were so good we consumed the lot before we even ordered our food.

The menu at Roc is not the usual predictable Northern Italian stuff, although it covers the bases. Chef Roberto Aita previously worked at Palio and Coco Pazzo and opened Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles. There are interesting dishes from Sorrento, the coastal town where Rocco Cadolini is from, and which has a great deal of seafood. You can start with an unusual dish of salmon, swordfish and white anchovies (yum!) marinated in vinegar and then tossed in olive oil. Or there’s a shrimp salad which is good too, tossed with raw baby artichokes in a lemon vinaigrette. Tuna carpaccio is very fresh, served with a salad of baby arugula and red and yellow cherry tomatoes.

Campania is the center of mozzarella production in Italy, so it’s no wonder that the buffalo mozzarella at Roc, served with marinated vegetables and basil oil, is exceptional, creamy and melting, with that slightly acidic bite that you get with the best and freshest. Two of my favorite dishes have just been taken off the menu until the fall, but I could eat them any time. One is a salad made with chunks of roasted butternut squash and mixed mushrooms, cooked so they are slightly chewy and their flavor is concentrated, then sprinkled with truffle oil and tossed with frisée. The other is pan-roasted sweetbreads with baked cauliflower and porcini mushrooms. There are nine pasta dishes on the menu, including a Sorrentino specialty: airy potato gnocchi topped with fresh tomato and basil sauce with mozzarella. Handmade spaghetti is terrific, topped with a thick sauce made with fresh tomatoes and basil. I was disappointed by the strozzapreti (literally, “priest stranglers”–curled short pasta with braised baby artichokes, calamari and marjoram), which sounded great but turned out to be a bit flat. Risotto is made with scallions and chunks of lobster in a rich, complex lobster sauce, but the grains of rice were mealy instead of creamy and al dente.

Grilled swordfish with tomatoes and olives is perfectly cooked, although the braised fennel would be nicer with less crunch. I like the pan-fried lamb chops, which are served pink and juicy inside a crust made of riced potatoes and rosemary. The breaded crust on the veal Milanese was limp on one occasion; if you want a good piece of meat, you’re better off with the charred grilled rib-eye, a portion big enough to take leftovers home for lunch the next day, served with a heap of excellent French fries topped with rosemary and candied tomato relish.

For dessert there is a wonderful limoncello-flavored soufflé-pudding with red and black currants and topped with brown sugar. Limoncello is a liqueur made with lemon peel and lots of sugar that is drunk up and down the Amalfi coast. Rocco’s mother has made it for years and sends bottles (made from her secret recipe) to the restaurant for this dessert. How many mothers do that for their sons? There is also a sensational chocolate terrine with espresso sauce and toasted almonds. I defy anyone to stop eating this before they’ve scraped the plate clean. The ricotta cheese cake with mixed wild berries and passion fruit sauce is fine, but not in the same league.

When we walked out, instead of idling trucks lined up outside the warehouses around Duane Square, we came upon rows of limos waiting for the sports agents who were still hard at it inside the restaurant. One of the chauffeurs was standing over a trash can eating his dinner out of plastic container, unaware that he was observed by a massive Greek head staring out from the new antiques shop that had for years supplied cheese and fish to restaurants everywhere in town–everywhere but here.

Roc

* *

190-A Duane Street

625-3333

Dress: Pinstriped suits

Noise level: High

Wine list: Interesting regional Italian wines

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses lunch $13 to $25; dinner $14 to $27

Hours: Noon to midnight Monday through Thursday, Friday noon to 1 a.m., Saturday 4 p.m. To 1 a.m., Sunday 4 p.m. To midnight.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Correction

Last week’s review of Lotus printed the wrong address and phone number. Lotus is located at 409 West 14th Street (between Ninth and 10th avenues), 243-4420. Just Off the Hamptons Jitney, Elio’s Crowd Ventures South