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Rustic Italian dishes and an interesting wine list beguile at the Marina's new A16

Wednesday, Mar 17 2004
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When Phillipe called to say that he and Liz were up from L.A. for a few days, we immediately made a date for lunch. "It's funny," I said, "that we actually eat together more now than we did when we were living in the same town, because we're not running into each other at the movies all the time, so we have to seize the moment whenever we can." (I'd noticed the same phenomenon when I moved to New York: Friends whom I'd manage to see when I visited for a couple of weeks were unbookable for months when we could see each other any old time. There was always next week. I'm reminded of the New Yorker cartoon in which a man on the phone consults his appointment book. "How about never?" he says. "Does never work for you?")

I thought first of the two best new restaurants I'd eaten in recently, but both are dinner only, so I turned to the Places I Haven't Eaten in Yet list and weighed the options: seafood, Basque, Italian. Italian! I'd always admired the way Phillipe and Liz explore a different part of Italy every year, and I knew that A16, a new place in the Marina, was named for an Italian autoroute.

"Autostrada," Phillipe says, teasing me and conjuring the name of one of our favorite Fellini masterpieces, once we are ensconced snugly at a banquette table in the rear of the restaurant. The paved A16 traverses the lower third of the boot, originating in Naples; the eatery A16 features the cooking of Campania, a region less celebrated in the gastronomic imagination than Tuscany, say, or Emilia-Romagna (though you might have heard that pizza originated in Naples. Sort of).

When I first glance at the lunch menu we're handed, it's so concise, divided into three sections -- pizze, salads and zuppe, sweets -- that I think we must be missing a page. Where are the pastas and the grilled meats and the seafood I expected? But no, the presence of that third category, "sweets," indicates that we've got all that's on offer. When I ask if there are any daily specials, our waitress says "No" brightly: "The menu just changed today. It's all special!" I turn my attention back to the list, which seems even briefer when I notice that two of the seven dishes under "salads and zuppe" are a plate of olives and a green salad, and the rest sound like small plates (purée of dried fava beans with fennel salad, pecorino, and crostini) or starters (lentil and broccoli zuppa with pancetta and pepperoncini). We quickly decide to order a pizza and everything on the second list except the olives and the green salad (there are olives and "verdure" -- i.e., greenery -- coming on the antipasti plate, as well as on that fennel salad). I'm envisioning a rather meager meal, which surprises me because the room is noticeably grown-up and soigné, with especially attractive flooring, decorated with subtle but pleasing diamonds of color. And the wine list is impressive: seven pages long, heavy on the Italian selections, divided into regions, with sections devoted to Campanian varietals.

We choose, however, an unfamiliar Sicilian red, Cottanera Barbazzale, offered by the glass and the .375-liter carafe. We request the latter (it's lunch, after all), but our waitress brings us a bottle, which turns out to be a happy accident because our food starts arriving, and it's so dazzling, and everything goes so well with the wine, that we finish the whole thing easily. (In retrospect, though, we could have tried a different wine in a carafe -- the place offers nearly three dozen -- once we'd finished the first. I was especially intrigued by an unusual dry muscat from Basilicata, the region just south of Campania. So many wines, so little time.)

We start with the fava bean purée, warm and smooth, with a mildly nutty flavor that's a nice foil for the sparkling, crunchy, thinly sliced fennel salad with shavings of pecorino and the antipasti platter. No surprises there except that everything on it is first-rate: creamy burrata cheese oozing butter, milky small-curd ricotta, tangy house-marinated Cerignola and gaeta olives, nicely dressed chicory and frisée, and rosy collops of very good prosciutto. (Mild quibbles: Despite the excellence of the prosciutto, it's a bit disappointing when the description of the antipasti plate mentions "salumi" (could be salami, coppa, mortadella, any preserved meat), yet it arrives with exactly the same prosciutto offered as a $3 supplement with pizza or salad. Salumi, yes, but we expected something different. And it took us three requests to get a basket of bread, by which time the antipasti were virtually finished.)

Next comes the pizza, a cheeseless version called marinara, its nice crust faintly impregnated with the smoke of the wood-fired oven and topped with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce. It's accompanied by the lentil and broccoli zuppa, a rough-chopped, mildly spicy mash with thick cuts of pancetta -- even more pleasant. And then the two best dishes of the day: the delightful sformato, a delicious baked and unmolded custard of cheese, eggs, and surprising chunks of golden squash with a sharpish chicory salad, and a hearty hillock of wonderful, deeply flavored chestnut polenta covered with an even more hearty, homey ragu full of sausage and meatballs. Yum. Was I wrong about meager. We are getting enough to eat; I love the sformato so much that I suggest ordering a second one, and I greedily consider doing so even when Phillipe and Liz demur.

We share three desserts, which, though agreeable enough, are more exciting on the page than the plate: a ricotta "sformatino" with walnuts, dried fruits, and blood oranges, sort of a crustless tart; a hazelnut semifreddo nicely complemented by shaved chocolate and a crisp chopped pear relish; and our favorite, the torta "caprese," a dryish chocolate and almond cake on a bed of zabaglione and mosto (a syrupy byproduct of winemaking). We linger in the room over expertly made espresso, smiling benignly at a cute baby in a stroller, two guys relaxing over pizza, the whole room.

It's so calm and quiet that I'm somewhat startled, later, when I call to make a reservation for Saturday dinner, almost a week away, and am told the place is fully booked. "But we have 30 unreserved seats at the counter and tables in the barroom," I'm told. I am happy to get a table for four on the following Monday, no problem, and make other plans for Saturday night.

The dinner menu is more than twice as long as the lunch (and the very full restaurant is more than twice, thrice, four times as noisy). Michelle, David, and Tom, as usual, say, "You order for us"; I reply, as is customary, "I want you to get what you want!" We compromise: I choose the shared first courses and they choose their mains.

Here are the pastas I'd missed at lunch, three rather unusual combinations -- tubetti with chickpeas, black olives, and pecorino; fresh maccheronara with tomato ragu and ricotta salata; orecchiette with broccoli rabe and Calabrian peppers ("Doing double service as vegetarian main courses," says a cynical friend) -- but I'm distracted by braised dandelion greens with tuna conserva, razor clams with marinated cauliflower and potatoes, and trippa (tripe) Napoletana. We love the slightly bitter, chewy dandelions, slicked with green olive oil and dotted with flakes of the house-preserved fish. "It's manila clams rather than razor clams tonight -- even better!" the server tells us. But I think the toothy, rarely seen razor clams would have been a superior textural contrast with the cauliflorets and potato chunks than the softer manila clams, in what is still an interesting combination. The soft strips of tripe stewed with tomatoes, onions, and white wine are heavenly. Our funghi pizza is OK -- I wish I'd tried a pasta instead. I am thrilled, however, by the slightly sherrylike quality of the Donnafugata Chiaranda Contessa Entillia we try, another unfamiliar Sicilian, this one white.

I've never seen more beautiful beef than the juicy, rosy slices of top sirloin generously layered on the plate (and topped with too many fresh rosemary spikes, easily scraped off). It tastes as good as it looks. The plump, disjointed quail stuffed with prosciutto and scamorza (smoked mozzarella) is just as good (I especially like its big chunks of toasted bread, impregnated with the quail's sticky golden juices). And my braised pork breast is a succulent pillow of creamy pork shreds, sided with fat, grainy chestnuts and big, green olives. Earthy and sophisticated at the same time. The only disappointment is Tom's petrale sole, pale and pale-tasting despite its capers and invisible anchovies and the fresh orange squeezed over it at table. We get to choose one vegetable side each from a list of five, and the four we have are all so good (baby lettuces with a lemony dressing, cold roasted red and yellow beets with onions, roasted potatoes with marjoram, garlicky cannellini beans) that I mourn the untried dish, a type of kale called lacinato cooked with a sofrito of peppers and onions. We wash this feast down with a crisp Sardinian Vermentino, Argiolas Costamolino, a bargain at $18 a bottle. I'm happy here; it's a restaurant with a point of view.

After a pink sorbet that tastes very little like the blood oranges it's made from, an intriguing cheese plate (a pecorino lucano and one infused with truffles called molentermo tartufo, and a goat cheese, caprino fiorito, topped with dried grape skins -- they do celebrate the fruit of the vine here), and superb coffee, we exit, replete. On the narrow street, which looks toylike to me, like Disneyland's seven-eighths scale, my eye is caught by a laptop, set alluringly in A16's window, running a random series of shots of the restaurant's dishes. There's the beautiful beef; there's the tripe, the cheese; and there are the pastas I'm going to try on my next visit.

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Meredith Brody

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