After many thoughtful delays, adjustments of décor, menu tweakings, and downright experiments of all sorts on the part of chefs Rita Sodi and Jody Williams, Via Carota opened somewhat stealthily last week with little fanfare. A companion and I dined there Friday night, arriving when the door swung open at 5:45, figuring that was the way to be sure to get in. By 7 p.m. the place was thronged and every seat was taken at this no-reservations spot.
The room is gloriously wide and shallow with big windows that allow you to see your West Village friends scurrying here and there along Grove Street. The lighting is yellowish, provided by long bare fluorescent bulbs at odd angles on the ceiling; the purpose of the lighting scheme seems partly to meld street light that comes in the windows with interior illumination. Everything is slightly yellowish. The room seats 75 total: 55 at a dozen square and circular tables in two rows, ten at a narrow communal table that feels almost medieval, and ten at a bar, made nice for single diners but not much of a place to linger for a drink. "This room feels very Italian," my friend observed. And indeed it did.
The menu is unusual, mainly Italian in many categories with creative flourishes. (Speculation that there might be a French component to the menu proved false.) The bill of fare seems to owe something to Otto in its concentration on vegetables, with a single veggie highlighted in each of many small and powerfully flavored dishes. A first section of starters and snacks features four subsections: Accompagnati (small cooked dishes), Salumi, Formaggi, and Crostini (all $7 or $8) — though, in practice, the categories are somewhat blurred. From the first subcategory we devoured a splendid plate of whole artichokes ($8). Unlike the fried leaves and hearts that Rita Sodi had been experimenting with the last time I looked in on I Sodi, these had apparently been boiled first and then fried, so the outer leaves were crisp and golden, while the inside was soft and dirty green.
A wide box at the bottom of the first section offers three ($20), five ($35), or seven ($49) dishes from any of the four subsections. Under Salumi, we chose managalista lardo, a pleasant whip of cured pig fat on two toasts with honey and walnuts, a dish that might also have fit in the Crostini section. From Crostini, we picked fegatini di pollo, a classic Tuscan preparation of chicken livers deglazed with red wine and mashed, mounted on toasts and surmounted by caramelized onions. We liked it, but some friends across the room through it too sweet. We also had a very enjoyable plate of wild boar salami, a cacciatorini (hunter's sausage) sliced thick and accompanied by caperberries and barely dried cherry tomatoes of imperial sweetness.
The three cheese selections were from upstate New York and Vermont; we skipped them, though they were doubtlessly good. Who wants to eat cheddar when you're binging on Italian? Vegetable heavy as the menu already is, a section known as Verdure ($10) follows. From a selection of 11, cauliflower was the most appealing, though fennel, salsify, acorn squash, broccoli rabe, and cannellini beans also beckoned. The cauliflower came extensively steamed, and bathed in the hot, lemon-scented oil known as bagna cauda ("hot bath"), with little disintegrating swatches of anchovy and black, oil-cured olives. I loved it, while my dining companion pronounced the vegetable, "Too soft!"
Only four pastas are offered, flying in the face of over a century of Italian-American restaurateuring. We chose the lasagna povera ($16), which arrived bubbling in a circular crock. The casserole used fresh rather than dried pasta, so was softer than you're probably used to in a lasagna, and the root vegetables had receded into the background clotted with béchamel. An interesting version of lasagna — there are dozens of contrasting ones across Italy. Were the other pasta selections going to be as intentionally unassertive? They included gnocchi and gorgonzola, polenta with mascarpone, and pumpkin tortelli — my guess is yes, but only another visit or two will tell. The paucity and passivity of the pastas is part of the distinctive style of the place, one suspects.
A pair of brackets near the bottom of the menu offers daily specials, and two of three on that day were organ meats: tripe and tongue. While Italian tripe of any sort is thrilling, we picked the tongue instead. It turned out to be the veal glottal organ poached to complete tenderness, which is like something you might find in Florence, where bollito misto is an obsession. But at Via Carota, the salsa heaped on top was more of a French persillade than a Tuscan salsa verde, showing, perhaps, the influence of Jody Williams' Buvette on the current establishment.
In a menu dominated by small dishes in a vegetable vein, the fish and meat choices at the bottom of the page seem almost like more small dishes — though, at $16 and $17, respectively, the servings are substantial. The sardines — three of them — come nicely grilled and draped with oiled escarole. It was one of the highlights of the meal. Faraona (guinea hen) is a favorite game bird of Tuscany and Umbria, and here the chefs use a recipe that Sodi had recently experimented with at her restaurant using rabbit instead: roulades of dark and light meat tightly wrapped with pancetta, heaped with tiny Castelluccio lentils. The dish tasted great, but was perhaps a bit oversalted.
For fans of Italian wine, the 50-bottle list is full of thoughtful surprises. No region is favored, and even Calabria and Molise have bottles. And thankfully, there's plenty of action at $50 or less, and a dozen or so wines that can also be purchased by glass or carafe. We picked a sprightly and bubbly red Lambrusco ($48) from Emilia Romagna, and it went very well with the rich foods. There are classic cocktails, too, beers, and even a dry-hopped cider. And if you're really in an Italian mood, conclude your meal with a glass of grappa.
Though we are in the opening days of Via Carota, and the menu is likely to change drastically, already it is one of the most talked-about openings of the autumn season.
Via Carota, 51 Grove St New York, NY, 10014; (212) 255-1962.