Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Move Over, Rocco …

Little Italy’s Back on the Map

The annual festival of San Gennaro was going full blast, and the smell of fried dough, sausages and onions filled the air. Under the twinkling arches stretched over Mulberry Street, parents tossed away their dollars in the shooting galleries and walked off with garish soft toys 10 times the size of their children. It was a warm night, and the tables set outside the restaurants along Mulberry Street were chockablock with tourists eating overcooked pasta in red sauce. Little Italy, for all its charm, is not the place you go for great Italian food.

Grotta Azzurra on the corner of Broome Street, however, may very well be the exception. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in the neighborhood, dating back to 1908. Caruso ate here. So did Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and Robert De Niro, and so-back in the late 70’s-did I: lobster alla diavola and a great deal of cheap white wine. But the Grotta became grottier and grottier, and six years ago it was boarded up. On this night, though, the doors had been flung open and the sound of Sinatra wafted out onto the street. We decided to go in.

You wouldn’t recognize the place. The owners, descendants of the Davino family who founded the restaurant nearly 100 years ago, must have sunk a fortune into their “Little Italy meets Las Vegas”–style renovation. And in the kitchen there’s an executive chef, Christopher John Pfeifer, who doesn’t even have an Italian last name. Ironically, while Rocco DiSpirito is creating a fake Little Italy with his Mamma’s meatballs in the Flatiron district, Grotta Azzurra is serving grilled langostinos and sea bass with artichokes-dishes that don’t have Naples written all over them.

The old Grotta’s dining room was down in the cellar. Its principal decoration was a large primitive painting of the famous Blue Grotto of Capri done on white tile. Now that room is a climate-controlled cave holding over 1,600 bottles of wine, and it’s also used for private parties. The main dining room (which includes an adjacent outdoor café, open in the spring, summer and fall) has been moved upstairs to the premises that formerly housed a bank. It’s a curious mix of styles: One wall is paneled with wood marquetry inlaid with mirrors that look like shiny gold buttons, with bare marble below. The new pressed copper and tin ceiling has been painted burgundy, the downstairs bar is made of a blue glass mosaic with gold tile inlay, and the floor is polished white stone. Replicas of Michelango’s Neptune, Bacchus and Caesar and other classical icons painted on lozenge-shaped canvases hang from the walls. To get to the bathrooms, you walk downstairs past a vast indoor waterfall framed by 14-foot mirrors. And there, tucked away by the kitchen, is the old grotto painting. What would Old Blue Eyes have made of all this?

When you sit down, you don’t get the neighborhood’s signature garlic bread, but a basket of different kinds of rolls with a bowl of olive oil for communal dunking. There are two wines lists; the short-and inexpensive-one consists of around two dozen bottles, mostly interesting Italian boutique vintages, available by the glass, half carafe or full carafe. They are a bargain.

The food, on the other hand, is not. As we waited for our wine, two middle-aged men in shorts came in and sat down at the next table. They ordered cocktails and a bottle of mineral water and then looked at the menu. “Too expensive,” said one of them. They put down the menus and disappeared through the French doors into the crowd on the street. The waiter, returning with their drinks, was astonished when I told him they’d gone. In the old days, they’d surely have sent someone after them.

Grotta Azzurra is expensive, with main courses ranging from $16 to $32. But the two men missed a good dinner. The food here is straightforward classic Italian, with dishes not just from southern Italy, but all over the country. The emphasis is on fresh, top-quality, seasonal ingredients. It’s the kind of cooking I like.

The grilled radicchio is one of those incredibly simple dishes so perfectly executed you remember it for days afterwards. The leaves were just slightly charred-still soft-and they were seasoned with a wonderful Umbrian olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar and crunchy Sicilian sea salt. They are normally served with a housemade Sicilian sausage, but on this day the sausage was unavailable, so we had it with wonderful grilled langoustines instead. You can begin dinner along more modest lines with a good fresh beef carpaccio with an arugula salad, or char-grilled asparagus topped with Pecorino Romano shavings and toasted slivered almonds. Grilled baby octopus served with spicy macerated tomatoes arrived looking like a pile of antique filigree brooches: It was all spindly curled legs, but it was tender and delicious, though it could have used a dash of that crunchy salt.

There are eight to 10 pastas offered each day. The risotto, laced with chanterelles and roasted artichokes, was a tad overcooked, but had good flavor. Silken ribbons of pappardelle were tossed with a rich braised-rabbit ragu. And if you’re desperate for spaghetti and meatballs, the closest you’ll get is the spaghetti with sweet sausage and tomato sauce. (Yes, there are dishes with red sauce. After all, Neapolitan cuisine is back in fashion again, and this is Little Italy.)

Grilled branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), a simple, straightforward dish, comes with braised Roman-style artichokes. The lobster alla diavolo is much better than I remember it when I came here all those years ago: It’s almost buttery and comes in a light red sauce on a pasta of fettuccine. Salmon on a bed of white beans was pleasant, but the swordfish, in a puttanesca sauce made of black olives, capers and tomatoes, was greasy and not of the best quality.

Our waiter said his favorite dish was the stuffed pork chop. I’m sure Sinatra would have gone for this one, too: it’s pink and juicy and served with creamy white polenta and cipollini.

After I’d paid my visits to Grotta Azzurra, I was surprised to receive an invitation to its official opening. So obviously, they are still working out the kinks-especially with the desserts, which include a crostata of fresh figs in brown sugar and honey cooked in a rather doughy crust, and a dark chocolate tarte in an almond pastry shell that was also rather doughy. But it’s great to have this place back-and, at long last, somewhere really good to eat in Little Italy. It’s about time.

Dining out with Moira Hodgson