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New Nolita Italian spot Civetta makes disappointing debut

  • Cuisine: Italian-centric Mediterranean
  • Vibe: Inviting downtown kitchen
  • Occasion: Group dinner; drink date downstairs
  • Don’t Miss: Rigatoni alla Bolognese, lamb goat cheese polpettine, lamb sausage with drunken raisins
  • Price: Appetizers, $13; entrees, $28; desserts, $7
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Phone: (212) 966-9440
  • Location: 98 Kenmare St. between Mulberry St. and Cleveland Pl.

If a restaurant could have a midlife crisis, Sfoglia is having one.

is an irresistible Italian spot on the upper East Side with wonderful
food and tons of charm. Judging from the reservation book, everyone
else thinks it’s irresistible, too. Sfoglia is run by Colleen and Ron Suhanosky,
a husband-and-wife team who work alongside each other in the kitchen.
But maybe they needed a little space, because they have just built a
bigger kitchen in a much bigger restaurant way downtown.

new place, Civetta, on the edge of Nolita, is Sfoglia’s midlife crisis.
The restaurant has two personalities and two dramatically different
floors. The first floor is an inviting dining room with sunny yellow
walls, shelves stocked with copper pots and canned tomatoes, a
fireplace and salvaged church pew-banquettes. But head downstairs, and
Civetta is a brooding basement lounge with lipstick-red velvet
banquettes, stone walls, white marble tables and tall, drippy candles.

crafted an extensive cocktail selection to attract a young downtown
crowd, serving drinks until 2 in the morning every evening. I started
downstairs with a Neopolitan Negroni — a good starter cocktail made
with Campari, gin and vermouth — then headed upstairs for dinner. The
Suhanoskys’ downtown menu features Italian-focused Mediterranean
cooking like baccala fritters with pickled red onions, seafood risotto
and grilled sirloin alla pizzaiola. You’ll get tons of attention in the
dining room, a little too much from servers who tend to hover.

But nobody’s home in the kitchen. Almost everything’s overcooked or
over-sauced. I ordered an appetizer of stone fruits with smoked
ricotta. It came in a cloying sea of agrodolce (sweet and sour sauce).
My gnocchi were lifeless little nubs stuck in a quicksand of pesto, my
romaine, crab and peperonata salad mired in a muck of aioli. We had to
saw our way through an overcooked pork cutlet, curiously topped with
grated carrots, guanciale salad and Vin Santo dressing. The spaghetti
with sea urchin sauce was a foul-smelling disaster. I like briny, salty
creatures from the sea, but the sea urchin tasted like it had washed
ashore days before.

Maybe Ron and Colleen were downstairs
drinking a sidecar, pink lady or Notte Civetta, which translates as
night owl. There are a few bright spots on the menu, like moist
monkfish polpet-tine (little meatballs) seasoned with ricotta, peppers
and olives. I also liked the rigatoni alla Bolognese, made with a
wonderful mix of ground veal, lamb, pork and chicken livers. The
house-made lamb sausage was fiery and flavorful, served alongside
caramelized endive and drunken raisins.

There’s a respectable, mostly Italian wine list with a spicy, medium-bodied Le Salare Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
2006 and an excellent Abbazia di Nova-cella Gruner Veltliner 2007. I
loved the peach layer cake with mascarpone and meringue, but the rest
of the desserts were forgettable.

The owners were so successful
uptown. Why did they fail downtown? Is it the subway right below, the
scale of the room, the overblown menu? The cooking was so thoughtful
and the room so intimate at Sfoglia. Civetta, though, bears little
resemblance to its uptown sibling.

Except for the bread. It’s
the same bread Colleen bakes at Sfoglia, with a salty, crunchy exterior
and soft, plush interior. At least one thing arrived intact.

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