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Cipolla Rossa

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Recession-proof dining.
1762 First Ave., at 91st St. (212) 996-9426
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, noon-10 p.m.
CUISINE: Tuscan Italian
VIBE: Humble neighborhood spot
OCCASION: Neighborhood dining, family dinner
DON’T MISS DISH: Grilled calamari, venison ­pappardelle, wild boar meatloaf, tiramisu
AVERAGE PRICE: Appetizers, $7; entrees, $14; dessert, $5
RESERVATIONS: Accepted

Why aren’t more people talking about Cipolla Rossa?

Maybe
it’s the location — First Ave. near 91st St. Maybe it’s the narrow
storefront. It has a bright yellow awning and it looks more like your
average takeout joint than a real restaurant.

The only reason I knew about it was the wild boar meatloaf.

Someone
had tipped me off, knowing I’m fond of game. So, I trekked up to
Cipolla Rossa on a cold, rainy Saturday night and waited 30 minutes for
a table. As it turned out, the meatloaf wasn’t meatloaf. How can it be
meatloaf if there are no eggs, bread or ketchup in it? How can it be
meatloaf if it’s not as heavy as lead? This one wasn’t.

It tasted
more like a moist Italian terrine — wild boar poached in olive oil and
seasoned with rosemary, bay leaves and a tart hint of juniper berries.
Maybe that’s how they make meatloaf in Florence. That’s where the chef,
Pierluigi Sacchetti,
is from. He likes game, too. Sometimes, he makes pappardelle with
rabbit ragu or tagliatelle with venison stew or spaghetti with
walnut-wild boar meatballs.

He has a way of taming the robustness
of game, encouraging its delicacy, its subtlety. Eating the tagliatelle
with venison stew you almost forget it’s venison. You’re not eating
venison just for the sake of venison. You’re eating it for what it
contributes to the complexity of the dish. Cipolla Rossa is a good
place to break in a game – shy friend.

 

You wouldn’t expect such serious cooking from such a chintzy-looking
restaurant. What makes Cipolla Rossa endearing are also its
shortcomings. There are only 16 seats in the restaurant. The phone
rings in the dining room because that’s where the cashier is taking
delivery orders. In the front of the house, it’s a one-man band.

Angelo Amato, one of the owners, is also the maître d’, server, busboy,
sometime-sommelier and life of the party. On Angelo’s night off, the
chef works the front of the house. Perhaps that’s why Cipolla Rossa is
so welcomely inexpensive. (I should also mention that the bathroom is
through the kitchen. “One coming through,” Angelo shouts before you
pass through the swinging door.)

And let’s face it, this is also
the kind of place where you’re going to end up sharing your food with
strangers. Where food is concerned, “rustic” is a word that’s
­basically been ruined. But let’s dust it off. At Cipolla ­Rossa,
rustic means a kind of coarseness in construction, but not in flavor.

For
example, the ribollita soup: black cabbage, onions, carrots, celery,
canellini and three-day-old bread — a ­stalwart vegetable porridge. Or
the squid ink tagliolini. The chef cuts the pasta by hand. Each strand
is slightly ­irregular, so the shrimp reduction broth — brodetto —
clings to every noodle.

The ­noodles themselves are buried under
an avalanche of seafood — clams, calamari, mussels, shrimp, salmon and
cod. This costs $12!

Not everything is wonderful, but there are
a few dishes you really must not miss: the grilled calamari, the
eggplant parmigiana and the crispy, beer-battered sweetbreads with
sliced pear. And why not close with the tiramisu? Gigi makes it with
mascarpone, espresso, cocoa, custard and savoiardi — a Piemontese
version of lady fingers, only better.

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