Dining Out with Moira Hodgson

Can Venerable Trattoria

Claim Title as the City’s Best?

When a friend of mine recently told me that he thought Sistina was the best Italian restaurant in New York, I was surprised. It had been years since I’d been to this chic little trattoria on the Upper East Side. What about L’Impero, Cesca or Babbo? “They’re not Italian,” he replied. “The chefs are American-Cesca is as Italian as you are. Sistina is the real thing.”

Sistina, which turns 20 this year, is where some of my friends went on their first dates and where, for the first time in their lives, they tasted bruschetta. The waiter used to bring the bruschetta “for the table” when you sat down, often along with a plate of fried zucchini. Sometimes the antipasti were free; at other times, for no discernible reason, they were added to your bill, making you wonder if you’d done something wrong or if the waiter simply didn’t like the cut of your date’s jib. The waiters were-and still are-affable and histrionic, rolling their eyes heavenward, gesticulating with their fingers as they describe the food, and adept at the sort of humorous flirting that makes even the most politically correct women feel terrific every time they set foot in Italy. Tom Wolfe and William Goldman are regulars here, and Giuseppe Bruno, the owner, greets his customers like old friends.

But not on a recent night. “Where’s Giuseppe?” my friend wailed upon our arrival. He was as upset as an opera fan who’s found a little white slip in his program announcing that the star is indisposed. Giuseppe, it seemed, was on a three-day vacation. “But he’s always here!” my friend continued. “On Mondays, he even does the cooking himself!”

The friends we were meeting for dinner were already at the table, looking bemused, having ordered Scotch on the rocks that the bartender had garnished with slices of lime.

The comfortable oak-paneled room, which has a tiny bar in the front, is decorated simply, with original Donald Bachelor animal paintings on the walls and lozenge-shaped Venetian lamps decked with tassels. The tables are set with white linen cloths and bowls of dark-red roses. At one of the tables sat a group of gallery owners; at another, a cluster of teenage girls celebrating a birthday, looking very puttanesca in their lingerie dresses. The grownups-fathers in open-necked shirts and mothers in pants-sat at a separate table.

The waiter brought over delicious crusty rolls and some rather soggy tomato bruschetta. He began to recite a list of specials that made our eyes glaze before he was halfway through: “Venison carpaccio, chicken with sausages, T-bone steak, scaloppine with porcini, mozzarella di bufala, sea bass in eggplant, monkfish, salmon, catfish ravioli …. “

“Catfish? Is that Italian?” I asked.

“Yes, from the north.” our waiter replied. “It’s called pesce gato.”

A waiter serving the next table turned around with a grin. “Pesce cane.”

“Giuseppe was at Parioli Romanissimo before he opened Sistina,” said my friend, who was still trying to get over his disappointment at the owner’s absence. “The food there was so fresh because at the end of the day, everything was thrown out-even the butter.”

We looked at the wine list. Giuseppe has 65,000 bottles at his disposal, stored in his cellar and at a warehouse in Queens; indeed, the Italian wine list is as impressive as it is expensive, with rare bottles and remarkable vintages from little-known vineyards. In the lower two figures, we had an excellent Moccagatta Barbaresco 1991 for $60 (another night, I tried a Dolcetto at $55).

The catfish ravioli was not a success; the filling tasted like fish paste. Salmon tartar-not exactly a traditional Italian specialty-was perfectly fine, but nothing special. Grilled octopus was unpleasantly soft (rather too severely pummeled) and was served with mashed chickpeas. As for the artichoke with peas, “It’s like an exotic version of toasted cheese-the sort of thing my father used to make on a Sunday-topped with an olive,” as one of my friends observed. Where was Giuseppe?

Sistina’s traditional dishes, however, are another story. The generous seafood salad was excellent, made with the freshest squid, octopus, lobster and shrimp, with fennel and a sprightly sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Eggplant parmigiana was, happily, unlike any other I’ve ever had: lighter, subtler and velvety under a layer of melted mozzarella.

Catfish ravioli aside, the pasta dishes here deserve three stars. I’ve never had better tortelloni, which were filled with veal and vegetables and served with chopped asparagus and black truffles. Linguine with anchovies, olives and capers (and with a touch of bread crumbs thrown in to bind it) was simply marvelous. Thin strands of spaghettini were tossed in a spicy Sicilian red walnut pesto of dazzling complexity.

The fish at Sistina, when it’s left alone, is superior. Branzino, cooked simply with a little olive oil, was perfect. But when the fish is gussied up-like the red snapper, which was a mush under a wrapping of eggplant and atop a bed of slivered zucchini-it’s not so good. The plain grilled shell steak was a fine, juicy piece of meat, a better choice than the underseasoned scaloppine.

Three different kinds of poached pear were a dessert special one night. Alas, the preparations-saffron pistachio, lemon honey and red wine-failed to perk up the tasteless pears. We fared better with traditional choices such as the oranges with sorbet, the wonderful warm, moist, flourless chocolate cake with berries, and the splendid chocolate profiteroles with ice cream.

Sistina is very expensive. But stick to the classics and get a good bottle of wine, and you may even think, like my friend, that it’s the best Italian restaurant in New York. Dining Out with Moira Hodgson