Dining out with Moira Hodgson

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Sister Sets Up Shop on Avenue A

Le Zoccole is a Venetian osteria that opened just over a month ago on Avenue A and Sixth Street, a block from Tompkins Square Park. It’s a spin-off of Le Zie (“The Aunts”), a popular artists’ hangout in Chelsea, which is also owned by Francesco Antonucci of Remi, and Claudio Bonotto.

On a recent evening, the restaurant’s doors were folded back from the sidewalk, and a friend and I shared dishes of chicchetti (Venetian tapas) as we watched the passersby. The street was as busy as the Piazza San Marco, and many of the louche characters strolling past us could have been revelers from Carnevale. One group that made me pause mid-mouthful was a gang of cheering women, sporting black D-cup bras over white T-shirts and giant phalluses painted with patriotic stripes of red, white and blue strapped to their crotches. What was it all about? Who knows?

The name Le Zoccole is Italian slang for “women of easy virtue,” and it also means “wooden shoes.” My companion, one of the few people I know who has actually lived in Venice-not merely passed through-told me the slang word originated from an error made by the art historian John Ruskin. The painting he famously called “the best in the world,” of two women seated on a balcony, is a work by Carpaccio, entitled Le Zoccole (referring to the women’s wooden shoes). Ruskin mistakenly described the women in the painting as courtesans, because of their décolletage and their high wooden platform shoes. “But,” my friend said, “those shoes were very hard to walk in and were worn only by the respectably married upper class.”

The name Carpaccio, for many people nowadays (thanks to another Venetian, Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar), conjures up a plate of raw beef, sprinkled with a little olive oil and topped with arugula and a sliver of Parmesan-just the thing on a summer night, with a grind of the pepper mill. And ever since Cipriani invented the dish in the 60’s, carpaccio has found its way to the menu of just about every Northern Italian restaurant in town, including, of course, Le Zoccole.

But this restaurant’s signature is its selection of chicchetti, to be eaten at the bar or at the table. At the bar, you can order individual dishes (priced between $3 and $4) or share a platter for two. We ordered the platter, and the waiter brought out a silver stand piled with small white dishes: deep-fried olives, soft curls of prosciutto in a Parmesan crisp, creamy brandade, stewed squid, octopus with celery, meatballs, fried artichokes with olive sauce, sardines, and squares of grilled white and yellow polenta. It was delicious, a bargain at $15.95, and enough food for a whole meal. If you’re in the mood for charcuterie, you can get a cutting board of prosciutto, speck, salami and lard with grilled polenta. Artichokes are another excellent first course, sautéed with black olives and garlic, heaped on country bread like bruschetta and topped with pecorino. For snacking, there are crisp fried calamari and zucchini, piled in a bowl and served with a spicy tomato sauce. (It’s a dish I eat with nostalgia, having had it for the first time at Puglia’s, a rambunctious joint in Little Italy. One night years ago, after several pitchers of the house red, a group of us closed the place and one of the waiters offered us a lift home. He got into the car, tore off his toupee and replaced it with an English tweed cap.)

Le Zoccole is on two stories, and the décor is minimal. There’s a long cherrywood bar that runs half the length of the downstairs dining room, the floor is plain wood, the tables are covered in brown paper, and the ceiling looks left over from a Japanese restaurant. The staff, dressed in black, are friendly, but were stretched to the limit for brunch on Mother’s Day. Clearly, the kitchen wasn’t prepared for the relentless onslaught of mothers and their beleathered, pierced and shaved-headed East Village children. My son and I waited nearly an hour for our food. The brunch menu ($9.95, including a first course and a drink) is predictable, the usual eggs Benedict, pancakes and waffles. We started off with a fine creamy pasta e fagioli soup and a mesclun salad, and went on to the only two Italian dishes on the menu: penne puttanesca, which was cooked al dente and served in a rich tomato sauce with black olives and capers, and lasagna, which was cold on one side, hot on the other. When we left, I smiled in sympathy at a woman, dressed in jeans, leather bomber jacket and lace-up boots, who moved into the next table. She was in for the long haul. My son described the experience as “sort of like Thanksgiving, when you sit around all day, but without the turkey.”

Mother’s Day aside, the food at Le Zoccole, under the direction of Le Zie’s former chef, Roberto Passon, has a zesty home-style feel to it, beginning with the thick slices of peasant bread and the bowl of olive oil laced with whole garlic cloves, red pepper and black olives that are placed on the table when you sit down. The daily specials (of which there are quite a few) sound more interesting than the dishes on the regular menu.

One night I had a lovely fresh-grilled branzini, and my friend had pork with rosemary and artichokes that tasted like the sort of thing you get at summer festas in Italy. The veal picatta was also good: tender strips of meat in a subtle lemon sauce. And salmon was perfectly cooked under a horseradish crust, served with spinach and diced tomatoes.

The wine list is almost entirely Italian, with most of the bottles under $40 and some interesting boutique vineyards.

There are a dozen desserts, including homemade ice creams and sorbets. The rich, chocolatey and creamy tiramisu was one of the best I’ve ever had. The profiteroles, which came with a satiny chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream, were a disappointment, though-a bit on the stale side. There is also a good selection of Italian cheese served with Tuscan figs in syrup.

When I came back for dinner a couple of days after the Mother’s Day fiasco, the same woman who had waited so patiently for her food at the next table was back, still in jeans, leather bomber jacket and boots. We smiled at each other again, and then ordered a chicchetti platter.

Dining out with Moira Hodgson