Home Sweet Rome: At Antica Pesa, a Feast Fit for an Oligarch

The particular stretch of Williamsburg real estate on which Antica Pesa, a tremendously impressive Roman restaurant, opened in October is

Antica Pesa.
Antica Pesa.

The particular stretch of Williamsburg real estate on which Antica Pesa, a tremendously impressive Roman restaurant, opened in October is no stranger to cucina rustica. Restaurants where Italian food is served in charmingly ramshackle conditions are manifold. Between Fiore, Aurora, Osteria Il Paiolo and other vowel-heavy trattorie too legion to mention, wandering around the neighborhood can feel like stumbling about Cinecitta’s Palermo back lot. But that’s not Antica Pesa.

Whereas those restaurants, whether by design or default, offer a homogenized view of humble Italy, a nation of casalinghe and clotheslines, Antica Pesa—Italian for “the old scale”—presents the Italy of Loro Piana, Fiat, Brioni, Trussardi and Ferragamo. This is the Italy of oligarchs.

On a recent Saturday night, the scales were fully loaded with richesse. Every table in the high-ceilinged room was occupied by patrons who smelled nice and looked nicer. Men wore thick gray sweaters with shawl collars. Women wore Carven frocks and Isabel Marant shoes. Scarves for all, Moscots for many, New Balances for none.

The bar was crowded, but its patrons civilly spaced. Out of a silver cup, a woman sipped a Piazza di Ricci, a cocktail made of vodka, fresh raspberries, mint, lime juice, homemade ginger syrup and ginger beer. Next to her, a man nursed a negroni and checked in on Foursquare.

Even the leather settee in front of the fireplace was occupied by a warm if silent couple. The man had made the mistake of wearing a hoodie. Man that I am, I could tell that he felt insecure in the company of so stylish a crowd. The woman, sensing trouble, drank a cocktail called Goodbye Lovers (Tequila 8, agave sec, yuzu juice, lime juice; $14) to steel her nerves.

That fire, set in a fireplace with an immense burnished-wood frontispiece, imbued the restaurant with a golden light. The fixtures at Antica Pesa are custom-made brass tubes in which bulbs are recessed. They consequently cast a soft brassy glow that seems beamed in from mid-century.

This is not the first Antica Pesa. To find its progenitor, one must travel to Via Garibaldi, 18, in Rome’s Trastevere, the neighborhood of that ancient city that lies west of the River Tiber, and climb up the family vine four generations to 1922, when the Panella family opened the restaurant in a former Vatican tollhouse.

Today, Antica Pesa is to Rome what Cipriani is to New York, a tollhouse for the cavalcade of big-name stars whose brilliance is only burnished by plates of high-priced pasta. The walls are lined with photographs of Hollywood celebrities like ScarJo, Matt Damon and Jessica Alba arm-in-arm with the owner, Francesco Panella, taken in front of a wall full of photographs of celebrities arm-in-arm with the owner, Francesco Panella. It’s a mise-en-abyme of celebrity and cuisine. And that star has not diminished. In early January, the Roman mothership hosted a premiere party for Django. Quentin Tarantino, it turns out, loves the spaghetti cacio e pepe.

The Brooklyn outpost of Antica Pesa is primarily the work of two of the four Panella brothers, Francesco and Simone. But when I arrived, both were in Rome, where they live, and I was met by Lorenzo, the only one of the brothers who lives in New York full time—who, like a Roman colonist of yore, had set off from the shores of Latium to seek his fortune in distant climes.

Suave and handsome, Mr. Panella looks like Johnny Depp impersonating Robert Downey Jr. He is given to cashmere sweaters and high-quality blazers. His goatee is unparalleled in lushness. The menu is expensive—pastas start at $16 and main courses range up to $30—and the presentation of its content is fittingly elegant, the result of its owners having run a very successful restaurant for 90 years. I don’t think it would even occur to them not to serve their fresh baked grissini, foccacia and pane casareccia in a wooden box with a brass clasp or to decant the olive oil—from the family orchard, no less—without a flourish of the hand. They don’t, for lack of a more graceful term, peasant-up their cuisine.

Starters like crudo e bufala croccante ($17), a treacherously addictive ball of imported mozzarella baked in a jacket of filo dough, or arzilla confit ($15), silky confit skate sautéed with escarole, pine nuts and spelt bread, aren’t presented on heavy, chipped porcelain with a floral border. They are, rather, accompanied on broad white plates by an entourage of fussy dots of balsamic vinegar, in one case, or draped, painstakingly, over a hillock of escarole in the other. The rack of lamb ($30) is perfectly frenched, very well cooked and served, not with mashed potatoes, but with a dainty potato gâteau.

Even the pasta, which is hard to present in a way that gives proper credit to the effort needed to produce it, comes across well. The cacio e pepe, in which pecorino and Parmesan bind themselves to thick al dente strands of homemade spaghetti, is phenomenal. Disagree as you will with Mr. Tarantino’s taste for violence, his taste in pasta is top-notch. The schiaffoni all’Amatriciana, little fat rigatoni with guanciale and pecorino, is equally addictive.

In short, the food is presented with pride. It’s a pride that, unlike in many other prideful restaurants, is presented in an entirely unforced and unself-conscious way. The Panella brothers are stars in their own world; their food is lionized in its own town, their charm is unimpeachable and it does not occur to them that it might not fare as well in a foreign land.

Their confidence, I hope, is justified. But, it must be said, confidence has an overweening side and can well swoop perilously into silliness. When I asked Lorenzo why his family opened in Williamsburg, as opposed to, say, the West Village, he told me that the neighborhood reminded him of the scruffy charms of Trastevere. “We wanted to open here,” he said, “before the neighborhood blossomed. Before,” he said, looking at me earnestly, “it was too late.”

So deep and puppylike were his brown eyes and so soothing the little massage he gave my delts that I couldn’t bring myself to say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Instead, I sipped a Manhattan that a man in a turtleneck had made for me and nodded. In fact, Williamsburg might be the apotheosis of a neighborhood whose scruff had been shorn by capital and condominiums—the very condominiums, I wager, from which these patrons had issued.

And yet the more I thought about it—aided and abetted by a terrific bottle of teroldego ($35), one of the many stars on an all-Italian wine list, and by the ministrations of a waitress born in Osaka and raised in Sydney, who had moved to Greenpoint only five months earlier and who, she told us, had a passive-aggressive boyfriend—perhaps Mr. Panella was correct. It was just a matter of scale.

Ten years ago, Antica Pesa would have been the restaurant to which Williamsburgians brought their parents in order to prove they didn’t live in a dangerous hinterland. Now, those erstwhile children have grown up, grown richer and grown unashamed to eat well. They can, in fact, eat Lucullan feasts, not in faux grubby diners with egalitarian waiters who nestle next to you, but like mini-captains of industry. And now the burden of parental soothing has fallen farther out on the L, to places like Roberta’s, Northeast Kingdom and Dear Bushwick. Only a fool would call Williamsburg hinter anything.

And so, Lorenzo was right. One flower had withered, and another bud, made of richer stuff, had formed. It was this, the secondary, tertiary and probably quaternary harvest, that Antica Pesa had come to reap. Here I was, a constant gardener, mourning for a petal long since made dust. But now, thanks to Antica Pesa, the scales have finally fallen from my eyes. Home Sweet Rome: At Antica Pesa, a Feast Fit for an Oligarch