What must be one of the West Village’s priciest restaurants — not counting sushi bars, that is — quietly slipped into this small storefront that once housed Einat Admony’s short-lived Kish-Kash this past May. What do I mean by expensive? Well, sitting on a late summer evening on tree-lined Hudson Street during my first visit, I contemplated a $47 veal osso buco that towered like a ruined chateau in the foothills of the Alps, its turrets slouching under a thick mirepoix of finely diced vegetables. A rosemary-sprig pennant poked skyward, while a thick pond of cheesy risotto spread beside it. Damn, it was good!
Osteria Carlina is one of the latest additions to the Village’s many popular Italian restaurants. There are hoary red-sauced places offering Italian-American fare, some nearly a century old; and modern spots that tout their regional underpinnings, offering more modern dishes from here and there. But Osteria Carlina is a true regional restaurant, focusing on the food of Turin, while straying to other northern Italian climes with its classic menu progression of antipasti, primi, and secondi. The wine list is all-Italian, and a separate truffle menu runs as high as $125 for an entree of angel hair pasta.
The restaurant is the latest New York City escapade of Carlo Rolle, Moreno Cerutti, and Davide Poggi Ferrari — all hailing from Turin, the capital of Piemonte, and a city in the Alpine foothills famous for its race cars and refined cuisine. The trio previously opened San Carlo Osteria Piemonte in Soho, which focuses on the same region, but with quite a different menu.
The most fabled dish in this region is vitello tonnato ($19). It mystifies many American gourmands that a sauce made from canned tuna can be spectacular, but then this is no Chicken of the Sea tuna salad sandwich. Here the tinned seafood is transformed into a sauce so smooth and airy it seems to have no texture at all, just briny beige deliciousness. The sauce is poured over curls of pink roast veal served at room temperature.
Carlina’s rendition of this unforgettable appetizer is improved with hulking caperberries, long stems wagging, which look like they might have arrived by spaceship, providing crunch and tasting like mild green chiles. Another favorite small plate is canederli ($17), squishy little spinach dumplings rife with bread crumbs and shredded speck, a sort of smoked prosciutto. The dish shows the strong influence of Austria, to the north of several Italian regions, has on the food of Piemonte, and the three dumplings, showered with butter and parmesan, look like stalled cars in a blizzard snowbank.
There are more conventional antipasti, too, including a seafood salad that’s mainly composed of shrimp and squid. It arrives with a thin dressing of little discernible flavor. On an early visit, fresh peaches at the height of their season were added to the seafood salad, the sort of feature one might expect at one of the tony ristorantes just off Turin’ s Piazza San Carlo (though the peach only succeeded in making me wish I were eating a fruit salad rather than one focusing on seafood).
While southern Italy worships dried pasta cooked to al dente, in Turin there’s almost no such thing, and all the pastas at Osteria Carlina, usually eight in number, are freshly made. Many are stuffed like ravioli, but in painstaking colors and shapes that change as the seasons pass. One thing I loved on a late summer visit, but which had disappeared from the menu later, was a flower-shaped beet ravioli filled with soft cheese, looking like the wan dark blossoms that appear in a garden just before the first frost.
My favorite pasta of those available currently is a duck ragu ($25) attributed to Venice, not unlike the classic ragus of Bologna but without a trace of tomato. Carlina’s will remind you that ragu was originally a French word meaning “stew,” and here the finely ground breast has been poached in a thick cream sauce, the perfect topping to showcase a supple and almost doughy tagliatelle. It’s a pasta sufficient in volume to be your entree – even though fancy Italian restaurants often frown on that.
Like the osso buco mentioned above, entrees (aka secondi) tend to be massive, barely accompanied hunks of meat or whole fish that are easily shareable and help justify the high price tags. There’s a plate-sized Milanese veal cutlet, of course, probably the most recognizable dish of the region and one that is admired across Italy; a whole branzino crusted with hazelnuts; and a beef cheek braised in Barolo, Piemonte’s most distinguished wine and an entree I’m kicking myself now for not trying.
Speaking of wines, you should drink some with your meal, and the prices on glasses and bottles are lower at Osteria Carlina than might be expected, something often seen in Italy, where drinking appropriate or even distinguished wines with your meal is an imperative. I washed my veal shank down with an $18 glass of Barolo from Cascina Boschetti, which provided the perfect, grease-cutting backdrop, and with a good-size pour, too. It’d be hard to find this wine deal at a similar restaurant.
The desserts are mainly forgettable, and besides, who could eat another course after the three previous ones? Still, the apple strudel that seems to have crept across the border from Austria is sweet, fruity, and flaky, but a better choice is bonet ($11), a distinctive Piemontese chocolate flan topped with a crumbly 17th century almond macaroon. On the other hand, if you refuse dessert entirely, the hosts will hand you a free cookie plate, the perfect thing to go with your last sips of Barolo.