Cheap Italian, Minus the Red Sauce

06/10/2009 4:00 AM |

La Carbonara, 202 W 14th St, 212-255-2060

Price range: $18-$28 Rating: 3L’s

You don’t have to watch the news or read the blogs to know something
is wrong, that people are hurting. You just have to look around. Stores
are shuttered, fewer people are in the shops and more are living on the
streets; “sample sales” are liquidating stock from an overexuberant
age. And few are hurting more than our neighborhood restaurateurs.
Across the city, old standbys and formerly hot upstarts are shutting
down. But perhaps we’re soon to see the bright side of standing on the
economic brink: the return of affordability. With falling rents come
new options for a notoriously low-margin industry: value without mass
production or manic turnover. And at the forefront of what I hope will
be a new wave is La Carbonara.

While the stodgy name implies otherwise, the vibe here isn’t old New
York Italian. No Frank on the juke, no red-and-white tablecloths, and
nobody’s grandmother manning the sauce pot. That last element may prove
La Carbonara’s downfall — as well as subbing out ‘Ol Blue Eyes
for throbbing mid-90s Ministry of Sound beats — but the
contemporary atmosphere of rough-hewn oak, cream wainscoting and
dramatic, dim bare-bulb lighting creates a welcome respite from an
unimpressive stretch of West 14th Street.

And, oh yeah, main courses top out at $14.95. For that price you can
have braised rabbit or a marinated skirt steak with roasted Tuscan
potatoes and spinach. It may not be the best steak in the city —
nor in the top hundred — but it’s a full meal for a fair price.
Same goes for the $9.50 spaghetti and meatballs, which is a bit
oversauced and overcooked, with under-seared meatballs. Le Zie, a short
way up Seventh, does a superior job, but charges over 50 percent more.
An appetizer of tangy salmon tartar ($8.50) was more impressive,
impeccably fresh and plated with an eye towards composition. And a
salad of baby spinach with crispy bacon, grilled portabellas and
gorgonzola ($7.95) was rich and substantial enough for a light
meal.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a shock to find a proper meal for this
price in Manhattan; one with gracious service of the sort that entices
regulars (if you ignore the wild-eyed, Euro-trashy manager), fresh
crusty bread, a wide-ranging wine list with nearly all bottles costing
under $30, and a diverse crowd ranging from hot young things seeking a
party to older couples seeking respite. It shouldn’t be a shock, but it
is. Is La Carbonara riding the crest of a new budget-chic trend?

I hope so. But please, 86 the house music.