Another restaurant on the must-hit list this winter is dell'anima. The brainchild of chef Gabriel Thompson, formerly of Del Posto and Le Bernardin, and manager Joe Campanale, once the sommelier at Babbo, dell'anima is one of the most promising new restaurants in NYC.

I found Del Posto to be a little too mega-Artie's (degli Sopranos). In this smaller setting, Thompson seems to be in his element. In fact, he is one of the star attractions. Working in an entirely open kitchen towards the back of the restaurant, the handsome young chef in an FDNY baseball cap drew a peanut gallery of attractive female admirers. Hate to break it to you ladies, but Gabe the Babe has a girlfriend, alas.

Beyond the open kitchen, the restaurant design is deceptively simple. Walls and ceiling are sculpted from plaster set with corrugated metal, creating an arched, ridged effect that would feel industrial were it not painted a vanilla white, with brass sconces shaped like tree branches. But most ingenious of all is the (expensive) ventilation system, which sucks all the heat and odors out of the kitchen so diners are not bothered. (Except for High Maintenance, who asked that I mention the draft.)

It was a nice backdrop for the job of waiting for a table. And wait we did. Only the foolhardy, or the very determined, should arrive here at 8pm on a popular night hoping to be a walk-in as we did, or you may set yourself up for Babbo levels of frustration. Better to make a reservation. The issue was that no one would leave. In an hour and a half's time, only one or two tables in the 50-seat restaurant relinquished their spot. The rest lingered happily on an on.

"It's the wine!" I said to High Maintenance and Knucklehead, who patiently waited with me. Every diner was lingering over a glass of wine from an excellent list by Joe Campanale. We especially liked the 2003 Gutturnio Il Poggiarello, the 1995 Nebbiolo Riserva Superiore Malvira, and the 2000 Brunello di Montalcino Talenti.

Finally, someone didn't show up for their reservation. We were overjoyed, as if we'd just gotten standby seats on a Christmas Eve out of La Guardia. Ravenous, we sat down and immediately ordered the bruschetta. The chickpea spread contained not the usual lemon but preserved lemon, and the pesto was made with parsley, not basil. These introduced what would be the most exciting development in dell'anima's fare - Thompson injects North African and Middle Eastern ingredients into Italian cuisine.

Considering how geographically close Africa and Italy are, the only surprising thing should be that it took so long for cross-pollination to hit. But the flavors themselves are surprising and fresh. Sultana mostarda was essentially preserved grapes tinged with mustard - a sweet and lightly spicy mix that echoed the preserved lemon. "Lily confit" bruschetta is so named because all the alliums in the mix - shallot, onion, and garlic - are bulbs from the lily family. Here they're roasted to the point of mellowness. It may sound strange to come away from a restaurant like this and recommend the bruschetta above all else. It's like saying "Get the bread." But definitely get the bread.

Service was attentive and smart. The manager didn't blink an eye when an inspector installed himself on a stool in his Department of Health uniform during the dinner rush. How kind of the health department to choose 8pm on a Tuesday to visit (with a seemingly positive outcome). And our waitress didn't miss a beat when Knucklehead asked her what her favorite Radiohead album was.


"Whoa," he said. "You're dark."

We concentrated again on the food. Arugula salad was wonderfully peppery here - from the greens themselves, not the dressing.

Pastas are not dell'anima's strong suit. While we loved the gently oniony pizzoccheri with brussels sprouts and fontina, above right, the bolognese sauce on the tagliatelle was indeed too dry, as Bruni warned in the Times write-up. Note to chefs: If Frank Bruni tells you your sauce is too dry, chances are your sauce is too dry.

Risotto was somewhat bewildering - a piecey, jambalaya-like mix of rice and dry sausage. The spicy sausage overpowered the dish, which I wish had been creamier, like this risotto.

African elements resurfaced in the intensely flavorful, slowly braised wild boar, which was served over polenta with the texture of couscous. I did not get to try Knucklehead's chicken al diavolo, but reports from afar have it that it's quite good, and certainly the chef has a deft hand with spices.

At this point, we hit a wall. It was 11:30. The restaurant was still packed. (They're open til 2am.) When High Maintenance and I reached the door, the noise level had reached a deafening caliber. Some of the people who had been there at 8pm were still there and still drinking Joe Campanale's wine.

She said: "It's a Tuesday night, and everyone's loaded!"

It's hard not to get carried away at a restaurant that comes to you from the soul.

38 Eighth Avenue at Jane Street
New York, New York



There are so many great new places to eat this winter that it might be better to forgo the usual post-holiday diet and exercise in favor of just exercise. Maybe just walking to the restaurant counts?

One of these great new places is Belcourt, which represents one of the best dining values out there. In this corner space that feels like an upscale diner-meets-bistro, you'll find gourmet fare like duck prosciutto and roasted leg of lamb - all on a menu that doesn't go past $22. The talented chef is Matt Hamilton, formerly of Uovo.

One of the drawbacks, however, is that same menu is posted right outside the window - the window where you may be seated, as we were the other night. Wall-to-wall windows minus curtains plus menu outside means that rando after East Village rando will stop by, look at the menu, look at your plate, then stare at you. It's the dining in a fishbowl effect. Doubtless the owners, who come from Cucina di Pesce across the street, wanted to draw people in, but this design didn't feel right in an era when it's all about the hideaway, the tucked away little place.

The interior of the interior design makes up for it, though - with low lighting, candles, bistro tables and pressed tin ceilings. As did the food. A roasted butternut squash and apple raviolo was decadently buttery and topped with a generous portion of chanterelles. How often do you see a "raviolo" - a single, large pocket of pasta filled with deliciousness - south of 14th Street? This is uptown fare that Hamilton has graciously brought to us East Village hoi polloi.

High Maintenance forked some over as a man in a watch cap stood just outside the window, smoking, staring down towards the table but more towards the cleavage vicinity.

"I don't think he's looking at the food," she said.

I tried the escarole salad, because I was intrigued by the idea of serving this normally cooked vegetable raw. You can't blame people, really, for standing outside looking perplexed for several minutes as they check out the rather intimidating menu. The amount of organ meats, fancy techniques and words like "bourrade" is an anomaly in this neighborhood. It's a balls-to-the-wall approach that draws in the daring and repels the faint of gullet.

This roasted artichoke soup special was a creative wonder - a rich puree topped with creme fraiche and maple syrup. Incredibly, it all worked together.

The bottom of the menu lists a sentence in small print: "Everything that can be made in-house, is." Hamilton should know: he spent years on a farm dealing with everything from livestock to olives. Chances are, on a farm you learn how to make sausage like the boudin blanc. Though I really would have wanted to toast and smush down this roll before serving it, since they don't seem to meld together as is, everything on the plate was great - especially the homemade sauerkraut.

This was all in the appetizer course. In a brief break before the mains (service was very quick and attentive), a guy in a puffer jacket peeled off from his girlfriend and waved in the window at us. We ignored him.

Grilled hanger steak was wonderfully flavorful, if a bit salty, and topped with marjoram butter, an interesting twist on the usual dill sauce. Here the more intrepid could opt for bone marrow sauce. How ridiculous is that? Bone marrow sauce. In the East Village. And the cost of the entree? $19.

The chef should get bonus points for the fried scallions - a riff on onion rings. Has anyone ever seen this before? Please comment if so - I haven't. And they were addictively good.

Roasted leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary and slow roasted white beans is as good a lamb dish as I've had in a while. The ingredients are Italian, the technique French. And the lamb was done perfectly medium rare.

The slow roasted pork belly featured more of that house-made sauerkraut. Fatty and succulent, the pork belly delivered as promised. This is actually a triple pork dish that's the fashion now: pork belly, sausage and pork cheeks. We liked the pig in all its incarnations.

More problematic was the branzino, which was met with horror when it arrived at the table whole, head attached. Here the balls-to-the-wall approach backfired. It makes you wonder if all the food writing out there has convinced chefs and restauranteurs that everyone is a foodie, when in fact, there are still many conservative diners who are put off by the idea of sweetbreads and fish heads. Belcourt pushes the envelope in that regard.

When it came back filleted, there were still a number of bones inside, one of which remained lodged in my throat for a while. Never rush a filleting job.

But we were all feeling pretty worry free by that point, with several excellent $28 bottles of burgundy to fortify us. I would certainly go back to Belcourt, especially when entertaining Upper East Siders or people from Tribeca in the East Village. I just might not ask for a table near the window. Especially when wearing a low-cut top.

84 East 4th Street at Second Avenue
New York, New York


Alliance for the Arts

The Alliance for the Arts recently hosted a party at Christie's to benefit the Robert F. Wagner Jr. Fellowship for Public Policy and the Arts. On display was Latin American art - and some fashionably dressed guests.

Don't be afraid of color - especially in silk dresses.
Shoes that echo the dress.
I don't know how men coordinate it all - the tie, the shirt, the jacket - but this one did it perfectly.
Clean, elegant lines.
Dresses with high waistlines struck the right note.
A dapper couple.
Loved this guy's hair.
These two were just so New York. And who is he?
Two stylish men. Note the solid color tie on the right - a Cary Grant look that's coming back.
Another solid color tie - this time in a more subdued look.
One of several sculptures by Botero.