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