Eater critic Robert Sietsema traipses into an Italian newcomer with an illustrious past.
Since 1998, when it opened at the corner of Washington and Christopher streets, Malatesta ("cracked in the head") has been my enthusiastic recommendation for a reasonably priced Italian restaurant — its quaint West Village location being a bonus. Italian pulp fiction covers plastered the walls, and the rollicking crew that runs the place came straight from the poorer, southern part of Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s breadbasket. This is reflected in their enthusiastic advocacy of piadina, a smoky wood-oven flatbread flopped over a single slice of grana padano or prosciutto that constituted one of the most interesting parts of a succinct menu.
As the years rolled by, the owners made little attempt to clone their success, other than opening Malaparte three years ago just south of MePa — slightly more upscale, concentrating on pizzas, and something of a disappointment. Now Emanuele Attala, part owner and chef of Malatesta, has debuted a new Italian spot called Spaghetti Incident on a rather obscure Lower East Side block. The name is borrowed from a 1993 Guns N’ Roses album that refers to a food fight between band members. The restaurant is compact, seating 40 at short tables, tall tables, and along an L-shaped counter that looks into an open kitchen.
There the bearded Attala presides, whipping up with his line cooks a menu that principally features different forms of spaghetti, nine in all, priced from $9 to $12 for an ample serving. No ziti, no farfalle, and no gnocchi! Like Malatesta, Spaghetti Incident micro-focuses, and to great effect. A pair of us sat down early on a recent evening to try chitarra, one of two dishes using a fresh spaghetti made on the premises. (The name comes from the device used to cut the pasta, which looks something like a guitar.) The noodles came tangled with fresh mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes, which provided a sunny sweetness.
Another we tried was spaghetti carbonara, this time with dried pasta. The recipe, which originated in Rome, boasted crisp pancetta, egg yolks, and cream, though the result was not quite yellow enough and the quantity of crushed black peppercorns made it seem more like another Roman classic, cacio e pepe. The plate was nevertheless delectable in a creamy sort of way. Apart from spaghetti, the entire savory menu further offers four shareable salads ($9 to $11), three types of Sicilian rice balls ($3 to $4.50 each, two minimum), and nothing else apart from a couple of daily specials.
The salads are invented and a little on the weird side — also an aspect of Malatesta. Apart from the main ingredient, Kill the Kale boasts fried shrimp and cauliflower cut in tiny flowerets, with a gingery dressing that might have been swiped from a Japanese restaurant. The rice balls were good, too, but you shouldn’t try eating them as a main course. Best of two tried were the ones made with crabmeat and fontina cheese, presented in a paper cone with a tomato dipping sauce.
The desserts were both splendid, a wedge of chocolate cake that was especially moist, topped with lemon zest and sided with a cloud of whipped cream. The other dessert was a panna cotta with fresh strawberries and a red wine reduction that settled on top of the pale pudding like red flood waters. The wine list is organized by grape and served by glass, quartino (a quarter of a liter), half liter, and liter. This is clearly un-oaked jug wine, but it goes perfectly well with the spaghetti. Glasses of wine are priced from $5 to $10, and the relatively light sangiovese is a nice choice. 231 Eldridge St, (646) 896-1446