Few dishes in the last year have been as outright contagious as the coniglio fritto at Via Carota. Crisp pieces of bunny float atop a battered and fried slice of bread that catches all the juices. In fact, this savory French toast is the best part. The recipe is quintessentially Tuscan, and it represents the kind of ransacking chef Rita Sodi has done through a cuisine we thought we already knew. She's assisted in this endeavor by having grown up on a farm north of Florence. After spending years as a Levis executive, she opened her restaurant I Sodi in 2008, perfectly replicating the three-course menu of a small-town Tuscan trattoria; it remains an unsung West Village gem.
Assisted by her co-owner and co-chef Jody Williams — she, too, has a formidable history making Central and Southern Italian fare at Giorgione, Morandi, Gusto, and Gottino — the pair reaches deeper and further afield at Via Carota ("Carrot Street") with a menu that not only plumbs the Tuscan canon, but goes as far as the Milan and Palermo for dishes that reflect the pair's culinary attitudes, which are emphatically seasonal and locavoric.
From northern Italy comes vitello tonnato ($19), razor-thin slices of chilled veal with a briny sauce of canned tuna and capers as smooth as a windless day on Lake Como. Canned tuna? Taste it here in a totally unique and satisfying context. From Sicily comes the unspeakably splendid pomodori verdi ($17): the season's first green tomatoes sliced and crusted with salty bottarga, the compressed tuna roe that tastes of the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, cibreo ($9) is a Tuscan classic, a gobbet of bread heaped with herbed and oiled chicken livers, zapped with a few sunny drops of lemon juice.
Printed on broadsheets and delivered to a slot in the back of your chair like a newspaper, the menu changes on a monthly basis. Consisting of eleven sections punctuated with rules and dingbats, the mainly-small-plates document emphasizes vegetables, cheese and charcuterie, fish and shellfish, meats, and pastas — in that order. One of its mysteries is why pastas are given such short shrift. Indeed, on several visits to Via Carota, that was the only section in which disappointments lingered, among them a small crock of tired lasagna and a lemon risotto that didn't fly off the plate with rich flavor, but remained monomaniacally citric.
Everything else has been fantastic. A thick and tender octopus tentacle, say, smeared with a chunky green-olive pesto, or a delightful plate of wiggly, pancetta-flecked ramps served with a polenta cake that flaunted its black grilling stripes. Meanwhile, dishes such as crunchy French radishes furnished with an anchovy-laced bagna cauda ("hot bath"), and manila clams in a heady wine-and-garlic broth remind us that Jody Williams' most recent project (with a branch in Paris) is the French-casual Buvette. A tension between the culinary values of Sodi and Williams is the engine that drives the menu at Via Carota, which has engendered a game among the pair's fans, who try to determine: Who's responsible for which recipes?
One outlook the chefs have in common is a belief in simple and powerfully flavorful preparations, proving simplicity can be startling. One of the dishes that seemed as though it might not work was the juxtaposition of creamy and oozy Apulian burrata with delicate spring strawberries. Faintly scented with basil, the fruit proved as good as ripe tomatoes in cutting the cheese's creaminess with their acid, an effect accentuated by a red-wine reduction. This is daring seasonal cooking at its most aggressive...and most successful.
This is daring seasonal cooking at its most aggressive...and most successful.
Are there larger dishes aimed at those committed to entrees as a way of life? Well, almost. The grilled orata (sea bream) served with escarole is a tuck-in of major proportions, but even richer and more filling is a dish I'd never heard of that sent me running to my Italian dictionary. "Svizzerina" features a diminutive ending and means something like "little Swiss," referring to a person or, in this case, a culinary offering. Shockingly, that dish is a bunless hamburger. But oh what a hamburger! Resting serenely in a puddle of pink meat juices and green olive oil, it comes with a pair of garlic cloves perched like little birds on a trembling sprig of rosemary.
The meat is fragrant; the meat is moist; the meat is well-aged and coarsely chopped, so that when you cut into it with a fork it crumbles gloriously. After eating its substantial bulk, fighting off the forks of your friends, you'll find yourself scooping the final juice-sodden crumbs of beef off your plate. You've never had a half-pound burger ($20) like this. And in burger-crazy New York, that's saying something.
Cost: Dinner for two including four dishes plus two glasses of wine, and tax but not tip, $120
Sample dishes: Panzanella, burrata and strawberries, fried rabbit on toast, grilled octopus with green-olive pesto
What to drink: The all-Italian wine list has many $50-and-under bargains, including a medium red Morellino Di Scansano from Tuscany's Maremma, a Lagrein rosato from Valle d'Aosta, and a crisp white Falanghina from Campania.
Bonus tip: Some of the most exciting dishes are those that reflect a use of vegetables at their peak season; during my visits there were ramps, strawberries, asparagus, fava beans, and green tomatoes on the menu, so check what's in the farmers' markets before you visit Via Carota.