If you’ve really explored the verdant, hilly byways of Tuscany, you know that the eating opportunities are not confined to historic osterias and roadside rotisseries. More innovative places are tucked away here and there that tinker with the country’s cuisine while rarely attracting tourists. Now modern Tuscan cooking has arrived on Wall Street at Etrusca, located at 53 Stone Street — a cobbled Dutch alleyway dating to the 1600s known more for its gastropubs and pizzerias than for fine dining.
The chef is Elisa Da Prato, who spent her childhood shuttling between El Paso, Texas, and Barga, Italy, a hilltop town in Tuscany’s northwest. Eventually she ended up living in Brooklyn, where she began her career doing pop-ups. Come 2018, she returned to Barga and opened Elisa, just off the town’s piazza, an experimental Tuscan trattoria where she regaled customers by seasoning with wild flowers and powdered tree barks. Now, Elisa is closed and Da Prato has moved back to New York.
The name Etrusca is evocative of the ancient past of Tuscany, a region honeycombed with Etruscan tombs, where Etruscan ideas, including culinary ones, flow like an underground river, popping up in unexpected places — and the most unexpected so far is on Stone Street. The restaurant has no sign to speak of, but a gray facade with cream-colored window frames and a tiny piece of paper in one mullioned window that says Etrusca. An interior deep and low-ceilinged runs all the way to William Street. Inside, it looks like a Tuscan farmhouse with bunches of dried herbs and ropes of garlic on the walls, and flickering candles on rustic wooden tables. Shelves of wine bottles complete the picture.
How does this welter of the chef’s experiences translate to the menu? The bill of fare offers four sections, and one is well advised to select one dish from each. The first section is cheese and charcuterie collections. The salumi platter ($42) looks like the Tuscan landscape seen from a helicopter, with lonza (cured pork loin), lardo, coppa, prosciutello, and salami in streaky white and pink hillocks draped with pickled fennel and sauteed scallions. Stalks of rosemary imitate miniature pine trees, and their aroma rises up as the cured meats arrive on a wooden paddle.
The multi-cheese platter is not quite so good, amped with pear butter and sage, but goes nicely with a bottle of wine. On a recent visit, another selection had appeared, la Tur ($18) — a soft creamy cheese of cow, goat, and sheep’s milk that flows slowly over a plate accented with onion ash, cocoa, and honey, in many ways the perfect intro to the chef’s novel approach to Italian cooking.
Appetizers, five in number, read like poems. If you want something that feels Etruscan, consider the beef marrow bones. They arrive sprinkled with porcini powder and armed with “swords of bread” — elongated toasts perfect for scooping out the jellied, encrusted, and smoky marrow. Then there’s the coarsely chopped beef tartare with — surprise! — New Mexican green chiles, proving that Da Prato didn’t spend all that time in El Paso for nothing. Best of all the antipasti is a plate of dark Spanish anchovies splayed like a rib cage, interspersed with grapes and toasted almonds.
The menu turns more spare with three pastas in the third course, and two entrees in the fourth. These courses are both so good that any pair of primi and secondi will satisfy. But don’t skip the pastas expecting a giant secondo – they are relatively small. My favorite pasta was surely maccheroni limone e lavanda ($28). It consists of fresh pasta sheets piled like just-washed bed linens, lubricated with lots of good butter and folded with lemon, lavender, chamomile, and rose. It’s like falling asleep in a spring meadow.
If in search of something heartier and more conventional, lumache (snail-shaped pasta) come inundated with a chunky ragu of beef and pork wherein herbs and cheese strongly skew the mellow but meaty flavor.
Now, if you’re searching for something small and exquisite as a secondo, go for the quail ($32). A pair of birds has been butchered so that the breasts and legs form four small pieces. These have been lightly breaded and fried like tempura, each piece providing an exquisite bite or two. Alternately, a pair of thick double-bone lamb chops come propped with roasted bulbs of fennel and onion. They’re about the most succulent lamb chops you’ve ever tasted, and at $52 can be shared nicely between two diners.
All that’s left to eat is dessert, and the best choice is a torta alla montovana, a cake made with almond flour, simple and austere and topped with powdered sugar. After surveying Etrusca’s wild flavor combinations, its plain taste is like landing after a glorious balloon ride over the sunflower-carpeted Tuscan hills.