Ottimo Fulfills My Romantic Ideal of a Quietly Great Neighborhood Restaurant


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There are enough good Italian restaurants in New York that no one need go to one of the bad ones?that even those do well enough to survive indicates the level of demand. An Italian restaurant that offers particularly good value never goes unrecognized for long here. The herd mentality that infects, say, sushi places, doesn't come into play so much. You don't see pasta joints getting by on decor while serving mushy noodles and ketchup sauce (except on Mulberry St.). And an Italian restaurant doesn't get to be known as a destination by serving pretty plates of mediocre food (but, then again, enormous plates of mediocre food is another story).


The point, I guess, is that diners in New York tend to get what they want out of the Italian restaurants they choose. I have a romantic ideal of a quietly great neighborhood one, and I'm sure that in this I'm not alone. At the risk of sounding like an old Billy Joel song, I have to wonder whether they ever really existed the way we're thinking. Sometimes I notice a little basement place for the first time, despite having walked down that (usually West Village) block more than twice, and, seeing old clippings from Newsday in the ivy-strewn window, think for a second I've found it. Anyway, I used to.


What actually happens to a quietly great little Italian restaurant, I learned via experience with the East Village's Il Bagatto. Back around the time of the dawn of dotcoms, my girlfriend and I were early regulars at the 2nd-near-B establishment. Bagatto was crowded from the get-go, but we'd show up early for their life-altering bruschetta and can't-lose rotation of pasta specials. How long did it last? As I recall it was less than a year before management started to get cocky, raising prices, reducing quality and treating diners shabbily. The memory still alarms: Il Bagatto became as famously unbearable as it had been famously reasonable.


From the Italian restaurateur's point of view, the process is perhaps equally upsetting. If most diners get what they want out of their Italian restaurant, and very many of them want a casual neighborhood place with stellar food at low prices, then management has zero chance of being one of those for long. There's nothing casual about a two-hour wait for a table, or a tiny kitchen forced to extend its impressive capacity beyond reason.


Another neighborhood Italian that didn't seem to have a contingency plan for being overrun is the Flatiron district's La Pizza Fresca. Located on the same block as Gramercy Tavern, it seemed to want to be a welcoming, dress-down alternative. And it was just that, for a while. But breeze in there for just a pizza and a beer before your movie nowadays and the staff will make it known that they'd rather throw you in the brick oven than let you get away without duly considering the facts that they take reservations, have a wine list and serve appetizers as well as desserts. Some nights I felt I'd gladly pay $35 for the pizza if that would get me left in peace. Instead I just stopped visiting Pizza Fresca.


Maybe I wasn't the only one fed up with it. That restaurant's former chef, Salvatore Esposito, is now cooking at the brand-new Ottimo. Esposito previously worked at Quattro Gatti, and before that in Naples. Ottimo is just outside the Flatiron's restaurant-high-density zone, on an almost desolate block of W. 24th St., in Follonico's former space. It's worth seeking out, even though (maybe because) it remains to be seen what kind of Italian restaurant it will turn out to be.


Early signs suggest stability. Ottimo is not an inexpensive restaurant, yet it offers indications of willingness to be the sort of warm place for regulars that Pizza Fresca doesn't want to be. Whatever it builds will be on a foundation of good service, quality olive oil and Italian bread, exquisite sauteed vegetables and brick-oven pizza. There'll be no need to turn over every table four times per night. Ottimo is far more casual than its local competitors I Trulli, Novita and Campagna. But it's almost as costly.


What meets you after the hostess is a series of formidable rectangles: dark wood panels on the bar wall, then a moderately large Tuscan dining room, with muted orange and yellow walls sectioned by strong perpendicular beams. Those section the symmetrical ceiling, too. In back is the brick oven, with hanging copper pots lining the way to the kitchen. Yet another weighty rectangle is Ottimo's menu. Enter the dining room absolutely settled on pasta, meat, fish, pizza or risotto and you still have a tough decision ahead of you. Several appealing options in each category, there are.


We wanted to read the entire script, so asked the waitress to assemble an antipasti plate from the buffet table ($12.95) in the meantime. The seasoned black olives on it announced in no uncertain terms what brand of Italian food philosophy Ottimo advocates. They were the kind of olives that aren't afraid to shout in a restaurant. I sat up and took further notice when even the large, green Cerignolas, usually mild, proved outspoken. Also on that plate were pleasingly bittersweet broccoli rabe, firm mushrooms, vinegary red pepper slices, sauteed eggplant with a more-than-casual relationship with its garlic?though no flavors impinged on the vegetables' own. A happy ball of fresh mozzarella was creamy and mild. The salad of chilled shellfish was also tender, non-rubbery and generous. If the length of its menu intimates that Ottimo wants regulars, the antipasti plate asserts it. It speaks the earthy, demotic dining language that no masterful French sauce has ever uttered, inciting joy over nature's bare intent.


At some point during the antipasti course, one in our party noted the presence of Falanghina on the wine list. It's a dry white she fell in love with in Amalfi, she said, and has had trouble finding in Manhattan. A much more common listing of a Campanian white in the $25-$35 range is the comparatively lifeless Greco di Tufo, which Ottimo doesn't bother with.


My entree, Spigola All Acqua Pazza (oven-baked filet of sea bass, $21.50) provided my own sail across placid memory bay. In Italy, every fish I ate was so fresh I believed it could swim?specially since it usually arrived immersed in olive oil. So it was with my sea bass at Ottimo. Confidence is what Esposito conveys with this perfectly medium-sized filet, baked with cherry tomatoes, celery, parsley and garlic, and presented with green-and-red shoestrings crisscrossing the fish like a tossed net. In this assemblage there was no tension, yet loads of personality. Like the choice of Falanghina wine, it's of a spiritedness bound to disappoint those given to checkmarking officially approved tastes.


Sharing Ottimo's space with our party were a few young couples, one old one and some bankers, who might have walked across Madison Square Park from the First Boston building. I expect it will be a diverse cross-section of New Yorkers who recognize what this restaurant is and can be. It's certainly not catering to couples or bankers any more than to snobs or cheapskates.


Our party's heartiest eater tried Ottimo's Osso Buco Alla Milanese with saffron risotto ($25). He's eaten variations of this dish all over town. Here, the veal shank is served with a marrow fork and sprig of rosemary upright in its tubular bone. The marrow went in an eye-blink, but the veal almost did my old friend in. It's a rustic slab, tough and a little stringy. Some restaurants do osso buco as a sort of stewed baby food. Even if one lets slide its consistency as in keeping with an assured chef's intention, Esposito's meat alone wanted for taste. At least he provided it, underneath the mighty shank. The saffron risotto was the best cold-weather food I've eaten this season.


Ottimo has two chapters of pastas on its menu: one all fresh, the other cheaper, all from dry. That's one more reason I won't hesitate to go back in my weekday guise of a thrifty local denizen, though it'd be hard to resist the noodles made in house, now that I've tried some. Fettuccini Al Carciofi ($15.50) is al dente ribbons with a sunny tomato coating, wrapped around a double handful of artichoke hearts as nice as the antipasti veggies, plus cherry tomatoes that explode like juicy telegrams from Capri. An exemplary vegetarian dish.


Ottimo's pizza crust is chewier than Pizza Fresca's?almost as thick as some storefront pizzeria thin-crust, so don't expect any approximation of Neapolitan crispness. The underside is expertly spotted with blackened-ness, countering the doughy sweetness quite well, I thought. The sauce on the Pizza Con Funghi de Bosco ($12.50) was sharp and pure tomatoey for this time of year, while mushrooms again turned up fresh and plentiful. In another uncharacteristic nod to local pizza tradition, Ottimo applies mozzarella more in a layer than a sprinkling like any other topping. No threat to Grimaldi's here.


Most of Ottimo's desserts are brought in, but our sampler of miniature pastries (Piccolo Pasticceria, $7), the waitress told us, was baked on the premises. The little cannoli, fruit tart and profiterole were good but nothing to write home about. Ottimo's baba was more intriguing. Babas are trendy at the moment?the Times recently reported how at Alain Ducasse patrons can select the rum they'd prefer their bulb-shaped, brioche-like case soaked in?but I haven't had many. I can only say I liked the one I got at Ottimo, and, with more authority now, if you like real Italian food, you will enjoy this restaurant.


Ottimo, 6 W. 24th St. (betw. B'way & 6th Ave.), 337-0074.


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