There are myriad reasons why New Yorker’s prefer not to eat Italian food in Little Italy. Too many gullible tourists who think it’s authentic, too many look-a-like rooms boasting near-identical menus, too much pressure from manipulative, apron-wasted, hair-slicked-back sidewalk talkers, too many other good options vying for their dining dollars, or perhaps because one can only eat just so many meatballs and just so much red sauce.
It’s therefore doubly curious that Frank DeCarlo’s rustic exposed vintage brick, concrete-floored, wooden bench filled ristorante Peasant not only dared to defy his neighbors by not succumbing to any of the Italo-American staples and (quite literally) build his own wood-fire oven and rotisserie kitchen, but that his success story has endured the renaming and reshaping of the neighborhood some 15 years later. If you ask any New Yorker if they’ve ever eaten at Peasant, they will probably say: “Ages ago. Is it still around?” Not only still around but DeCarlo has been consistently packing them in long before, during and (not surprisingly) after Michele Obama and the first daughters’ recent visit.
The menu runs the gamut of delicacies from earth, sea and sky, with just enough flavor restraint to allow the benefit of cooking at over 700 degrees to really pay off. The Acciuga E Radice salad is a wonderfully simple combination of mild white anchovies, radishes and crusty croutons tossed in a complimentary red-wine vinaigrette. The appropriately named Polpi in Purgatorio (Octopus in purgatory) though immaculately tamed in a garlic and chili butter would have welcomed a touch more tenderness, but the white-wine, garlic and breadcrumb encrusted Cannolicchi (Razor Clams) were a home run.
The primi piatti selections include a Risotto, a Gnocchi and a tight handful of pastas including a rich and decadent Spaghettini Ricci laden with roasted cherry tomatoes and fresh sea urchin. Even though the fire-crusted-skinned Orata alla Griglia (Grilled Sea Bream) looked rather lonely on top of a rosemary quilt with only a tiny goblet of herb butter for company, the pure ocean flavor and perfectly moist texture is indubitably the best I have ever eaten.
But the money on the table has to be the whole-roasted Rabbit. Although not on the menu, (my hunch says it will be very soon) the leporid is heartily stuffed with rosemary, (clearly chef DeCarlo’s favorite go-to herb) and then tightly wrapped in guanciale (pork jowels) which caramelize around the skin forming a smoky, salty and incredibly fragrant aroma. I realize that the thought of a rabbit stuck between the cheeks of a pig might put one over the edge, but the combination of these two worlds on one plate is utterly delicious and completely unforgettable.
Somewhat more forgettable were the ten-more-minutes-on-the-cooker-would-have-done-it Rhubarb and Berry stew, and the overly-dense Chocolate Ganache, but thanks to our waiter’s theatrically gesticulating descriptions, via his thick yet disarmingly authentic accent, the dessert options are certainly worth hearing about.