92 Second Ave, between 5th and 6th Sts
Rating: 4 L-Stars
Price Range: Entrees $10-18; Dinner $15-34
Second Avenue in the East Village is a restaurant orgy, ranging from Ukrainian to Vegetarian to Indian. Nestled in a sea of colored awnings and café-style street seating is Poetessa, the latest Italian addition to a district rich with pastas and bruschetta. That is, if you walk in the right door. In a classic maneuver, I initially went into the wrong restaurant and then, once I’d sat down in the correct space next door, proceeded to knock down some lovely lace curtains. Poetessa, like most Italian restaurants, has thrown its chips in the "home and hearth" genre of decorating and succeeds with grandma-like panache, hanging old black and white portraits on its exposed brick walls and keeping its floors and tables a dark wood. Then there are the curtains, which our waiter so thoughtfully replaced after I’d wrecked them.
The menu holds few surprises, though I experimented with their fried asparagus, which proved a more highbrow cousin of the typical fried zucchini plate, complemented by a pungent creamy fontina for dipping. As for my favorites — pastas! — the Tagliolini with zucchini ($16) is a complex blend of oil, zucchini, pine nuts, and feta. Perhaps a bit too oily for my taste, but my dining companion would have none of my criticism. Being a "Mama Poetessa" type of establishment, the kitchen shines through its basic red-sauce dishes, like Lasagna ‘alla Romagnola’ ($11) and the lighter-than-it-sounds Polpetti della Nonna ($10), essentially spaghetti with ‘grandma’s braised pork meatballs.’ Skeptical as I was about pork meatballs, they proved surprisingly succulent and didn’t leave my stomach gasping for air. The marinara lacked the zing I was hoping for, but was manageable as a "prima." The pastas were not at all the vats of carbohydrates one typically finds at more American-Italian eateries. Don’t be afraid to share a "secondi" after pasta as a pleasant counterpoint. The Polletto con Salsiccia ($13) delighted with its savory roasted chicken and mushrooms, though I skipped the broccoli rabe — a hang-up from grade school. That said, the 11 year old in me licked up the last of the parmagiana mashed potatoes, which must have had a pound of butter in them.
For a sugary finish, sample the sweets that Poetessa imports from Il Laboratorio del Gelato on the Lower East Side. With flavors like honey-lavender, cinnamon, and blood orange, it’s a bold finish to a traditional Italian meal.