Meatpacking-District Gem Doesn’t Pack Them In …Yet

For years, Florent, the all-night bistro, was pretty much the only restaurant in the meat market. Now there are at least a dozen. Macelleria is next-door to Chinghalle, down the block from Rhône and across the street from Pastis. Macelleria means “butcher shop” in Italian, the sort of place you find on the piazzas of small towns in Italy. There was one in Umbria where I stayed one summer; a whole steer had been skinned and left over the doorway, so you had to bend down and slide between its legs to get through the door.

Macelleria is in a cavernous former meat-locker that’s at least 10 times the size of that Umbrian butcher shop, with three dining rooms on two levels. A friend of mine who’s a great cook called to tell me that she’d had a wonderful dinner there and begged me to take a look. So the next afternoon, another friend and I ducked out of the rain for a late lunch. We were the only customers. At the huge, white-tiled bar in the front stood a lone barman, doing what lone barmen do: polishing glasses. A young waiter motioned us to one of the bare wooden tables in the corner of the room, which has high red-brick walls and a concrete floor. Feeling a bit like tourists who find themselves dining at the wrong hour of the day, we ordered a glass of wine and, as the rain continued, proceeded to have a wonderful lunch. So where was everybody else?

Macelleria is owned by Sergio Bitici and his daughter, Violetta. Their family has been in the restaurant business since the 1970’s, with Gran Ticino in the Village, Chelsea Trattoria Italiana and Toscana on the Upper East Side. Mr. Bitici sold Toscana and exchanged his gray business suit for a sweater and jeans. His new restaurant, which opened last fall, has an original stone foundation that dates back to the 1700’s. It is elegant, spacious and–even when more than one table is occupied–not noisy. It has a small private dining room in a meat locker by the kitchen and another in the wine cellar, where the ceiling is covered with panels of wine crates that Mr. Bitici has collected over the years. He’s kept the meat hooks, sliding metal refrigerator doors, butcher blocks and wooden shutters from Macelleria’s previous incarnation. Fortunately, he hasn’t followed the lead of some of the restaurants in this neighborhood, which look like the work of a designer with a mean streak. The lighting doesn’t make people look green around the gills; it’s low and flattering. But comfortable though Macelleria is, it seems a bit unfocused. Part of the problem is the size: The vast expanses of bare brick wall, hung here and there with salami, could do with a painting or two to perk them up, something suitably garish and gigantic–a Schnabel or, as my husband said, a Bacon instead of bacon.

The owners describe the food as Northeastern Italian. The menu is simple (and inexpensive), with such typically Italian dishes as salami and prosciutto, spaghetti carbonara and linguine with garlic and olive oil. One rainy evening, when a group of us arrived for dinner (this time the restaurant was half-full), Mr. Bitici brought a platter of mushroom crostini to the table. It was a wonderfully subtle dish of diced raw white mushrooms, seasoned only with lemon, salt, pepper and extra-virgin olive oil, on toasted bread that had been rubbed with garlic. Other kitchens might have slathered the mushrooms in garlic, but this was the equivalent of a well-tailored Armani jacket. Another disarmingly simple dish consisted of the sweetest beets, roasted until their juices had caramelized, served on baby greens and crumbled with a powerful goat cheese.

Clams casino is not something to be ordered without a qualm–especially if you’ve ever eaten them in Little Italy. It’s tricky to make: If you get the bacon and bread crumbs properly crisp, the clams often end up rubbery. But these were perfect: briny and tender under a thick slice of browned bacon topped with a layer of crunchy toasted bread crumbs. The grilled baby squid was also outstanding, lightly charred chunks coated in a rich black ink sauce, which we mopped up with the excellent salty white bread.

Despite its butcher-shop name, pasta is one of Macelleria’s greatest strengths. Tagliolini, tossed in cream with peas and prosciutto, “tastes like the kind of dish you get at a great restaurant in Italy,” said the person twirling it onto his fork. Soft pillows of agnolotti were served simply with butter and fried sage; delicate ravioloni with a light tomato-basil sauce.

Several first courses came on a bed of polenta, which the chef prepares soupy rather than thick. One topping was grilled quail, pink and juicy with a nicely glazed skin. Another was porcini mushrooms, which needed a dash of salt, and a third was topped with duck livers marsala, which were dry.

“I’m going to bring you something I bet you’ve never had in America,” said Mr. Bitici after we’d finished our first courses. And indeed, risotto with nettles is not a dish I’ve ever had on these shores. (God knows why; there’s no dearth of nettles.) Like the polenta, the rice had just the right degree of soupiness, and the nettles gave it a lovely sharp, lemony flavor.

The people at the next table were devouring an enormous rare steak that caught one of my companions’ eye. It was a porterhouse for two with green peppercorns–not a dish you can get in Italy these days, where such steaks are banned until the end of the year because of mad-cow disease. “How much is the steak,” he asked, “$12.99?”

“No,” said the waiter, “$11.95.”

He was joking, of course. At $56 for two, the porterhouse is the most expensive dish on a menu where only the sirloin ($26) costs more than $18. The steaks, properly aged, were perfectly done. But other dishes–such as branzino (a fish special of the day), grilled Cornish hen with rosemary, and roasted rabbit–were marred by overcooking.

Desserts, which are made in-house and change daily, include a creamy, not-too-sweet tiramisu, a feather-light apple strudel with cinnamon ice cream and a sublime crème brûlée.

Macelleria may not have the buzz of its neighbor Pastis, but you can hold a conversation here without going hoarse. And even though visually it doesn’t make a very forceful impression, this restaurant is capable of serving some of the best food in the neighborhood.

Macelleria

* 1/2

48 Gansevoort Street

741-2555

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: About 100 well-priced bottles, heavy on Italian, with some unusual vintages

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch $10 to $26, dinner $12 to $26

Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 3:30 p.m.; Brunch Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.

Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. To 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m., Sunday until midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Meatpacking-District Gem Doesn’t Pack Them In …Yet