Dining out with Moira Hodgson

DeLuca’s Trattoria Harks Back

To Soho’s Good Old Days

I’m always surprised when I walk into a brand-new restaurant that hasn’t yet been written up and find it full of people. Where do they come from, and how do they know about it?

Giorgione, in Soho, is tucked away from the main drag, on a dark block of Spring Street between Hudson and Greenwich streets. It’s a sleek, modern trattoria that reminds me of the ones I’ve been to in Rome (all it needs is a few Vespas parked outside for that final touch of authenticity). When I first came here, a week after the restaurant opened, the night was warm and tables had been set out on the sidewalk. Looking down the street, beyond the piers and the Hudson River, you could get a fine view of the magnificent old power station looming on the horizon like a Fascist monument, lit up in the colors of the Italian flag.

The maitre d’ led us inside, past the bar and up a short flight of steps to a corner table. Just as I sat down on the banquette, Giorgio DeLuca came running up to say hello.

Anyone who’s ever lived in Soho knows Mr. DeLuca: He was here before the neighborhood even had a name. Thirty years ago, when the only place to buy groceries was the corner deli, he opened a small cheese store on Prince Street. In 1977, three years later, he moved across the street, where he and Joel Dean established Dean & DeLuca, the fancy food emporium that had feathered game hanging from its ceiling and sold exotic foodstuffs that few people in those days had seen before, like hand-pressed extra-virgin olive oils and fresh white truffles. The store was so successful that, 12 years ago, it moved to a larger space on the corner of Broadway, where it became a prominent stop on the tourist circuit. But three years ago, Mr. DeLuca sold his interest in Dean & DeLuca, thus ending the era when he would patrol the store’s marble halls, schmoozing with customers. Like so many other fixtures of the old Soho, he just seemed to vanish.

Now he’s back-and so are his customers. They’re coming here for dishes like squid served in its ink with

polenta (the dense black sauce goes down like chocolate), ceviche of bay scallops served in their shells, and thin-crusted pizzas topped with tomato and mozzarella. Among the kitchen’s specialties are roast squab, which arrives on a golden mound of saffron risotto, and a thick veal chop with a wild-mushroom sauce.

Mr. DeLuca has always had a good notion of what people want. His restaurant serves straightforward Italian cooking (no prune gnocchi or foie gras with tuna here), and the prices are neighborly, starting at $11 for pizza to $24 for a veal chop. There’s a seafood bar, of course. Balthazar, Keith McNally’s French bistro at the other end of Spring Street, set this trend, and now restaurants all over town are outdoing each other with their fruits de mer platters. Giorgione’s is smaller in scale than Balthazar’s: The shellfish are set out on a mound of crushed ice by the bar in the front, and 10 different kinds of oysters are offered daily.

Everything-not just the shellfish-gleams in the restaurant. The tables have shiny metal tops you can see your face in, the chairs are leather and metal, and the floor is made of glittery white mosaic tiles. There are long gray banquettes down one side of the room, and the stark white brick walls behind them are stacked with shelves of wine. The kitchen is concealed behind a protruding, rounded white wall that looks like some sort of ancient Hopi Indian dwelling. The back of the dining room has a skylight, a giant smoky mirror and a vast back wall painted a luminous Giotto blue. As for the music, let’s just say that it would provide fine background noise for picking out vegetables or choosing a hunk of cheese. But at least it’s not intrusive.

Giorgione’s wine list is entirely Italian (just as Balthazar’s is all French), and the chef, Aldo Monosi, prepares classic Italian food that goes with it. The beef carpaccio, layered over warm asparagus and topped with slivers of Parmesan and truffle oil, is excellent. So is the salad of roasted beets with ricotta cheese, served in a raspberry vinaigrette with baby arugula, lemon and orange peel. Some dishes aren’t quite there yet, such as the bland baby artichokes with diced yellow tomatoes, and the mozzarella di bufala served under a warm red pepper sauce. The latter was a bit like eating a pizza topping without the crust. You’re better off ordering one of the pizzas, which are very good.

Mr. Monosi has a sure hand with pasta, beginning with his light, delicate crespelle (Italian crêpes) filled with ricotta and spinach, and his ravioli with mushrooms, truffle oil and sage. Spaghetti alle vongole is first-rate, made with Manila clams and loaded with garlic, olive oil and parsley. The trenette (a narrower version of tagliatelle), tossed in a creamy pesto sauce, is one of the best things on the menu.

Mr. Monosi also does a filet of perch baked in parchment with tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, potato and white wine. When it’s snipped open at the table, an enticing aroma is released. The fish is a little oily, but very fresh.

Not many restaurants have an old-fashioned dessert trolley these days. At Giorgione, if you’re sitting in the downstairs dining room, it’s wheeled up to the table loaded with cakes, fruit salads and tarts (there is also a delicious crème caramel ice cream available). The first time I came here, the pastry was rather doughy.

“Please try the fig tart again,” said Mr. Monosi, who emerged from the kitchen on both my visits (since I had been recognized). “I fixed the crust. I got a recipe from a friend at Cipriani.”

The new recipe made a world of difference; the crust was light and crisp, and the figs were perfectly ripe. The chef also makes a lovely tart filled with black and green grapes.

As we finished dessert, Giorgio stopped by to ask how we had enjoyed dinner.

“I don’t want publicity,” he said, somewhat disingenuously. “I want this to be a neighborhood place.”

But the neighborhood is not, of course, what it used to be. Over the last decade, Soho has become a shopping mall full of billboards and giant chains. The art galleries are long gone; bankers and stockbrokers have taken over the lofts, and the old Dean & DeLuca has become a Club Monaco. Giorgio’s former partner, Joel Dean, now looks out of his Mercer Street loft onto an Adidas store, which recently replaced the design store Ad Hoc.

“Poor Joel,” said Giorgio. “I’m afraid Soho is going to get like Eighth Street,” he added. “I mean, how many more sneaker shops do we need?”

None. But Soho is always ready for a good restaurant, and Giorgione is a welcome addition to this chain-store-ridden neighborhood. It brings back the best of the old days. Dining out with Moira Hodgson