Bar Stuzzichini and Shorty's.32

Fine dining is fine, but let's face it: most of the time, most of us just want to eat. This is particularly the case when you're going out with a gang of friends. It's not about the provenance of the foie gras or that rare bottle of Screaming Eagle on the wine list, it's about good food in a fun atmosphere.

Two places that satisfy in this regard are Shorty's.32 and Bar Stuzzichini, where the gang and I ate recently. The reports are true - Bar Stuzzichini ain't much to look at. For one thing, the wrought-iron chandeliers are attached to foam core board ceilings, which means the decorator should have his license revoked. As I have tried to explain to the aesthetically-impaired super of my own building many a time, foam core board = anathema. Though the atmosphere is lively, the restaurant's makeshift Italian design makes Morandi look real by comparison. We termed the décor "D-list Morandi."

But maybe I just had A, B, C, and D lists on the brain because of the pop culture symposium going on at this table of media junkies. Of Jada Pinkett Smith and the Page Six blind item: "She makes Queen Latifah look straight."

Finally the talk turned to the menu. After five to ten minutes of debate, we decided what to order. Actually, the gang didn't decide so much as agree to disagree. We just ordered more, which is fine at Bar Stuzzichini because there are so many menu items that you can "pick" at (stuzzicare), and most are inexpensive. Though efficient enough, our young waiter was very serious and a little bizarre. It was like having Rainn Wilson's character from Six Feet Under as your server.

One of the best things here - and a reason to go back - is the chickpea fritters, which were actually on our B list of things to order. Thank God we went to the B list, because these were airy, light, fried little pillows that reminded me of actual Italian street food, particularly the deep fried cubes of polenta you can find everywhere around Florence but nowhere here. Manna from heaven. Trained at Wallsé under Kurt Gutenbrunner, chef Paul Di Bari is also an expert at making potentially heavy foods taste light as air.

Also delicious were the smoky grilled octopus with a glaze of what seemed like reduced, slightly sweet balsamic vinegar, the arancini (rice balls), which were stuffed not with the usual mozz but a slightly funkier, more complex cheese like taleggio, and the fried artichokes, which perfectly suit the "picking" theme of the restaurant.

I was actually not a fan of the deep fried meatballs. Though perfectly crunchy outside and moist within, they seemed sad without a little marinara sauce. Grilled zucchini were ho-hum.

The gnocchi that has some people raving did not make as big of an impression on me. Maybe I've gotten too attached to gnocchi that's been pan-seared, an Asian-dumpling technique that's now used on pasta like the fabulous bacon gnocchi at Allen & Delancey. Also, the amatriciana sauce didn't taste enough of pork. At first I blamed the use of delicate guanciale in place of the usual pancetta. (Flo Fab has it that guanciale is the authentic ingredient of choice.) But Crispo's excellent bucatini with amatriciana sauce is made with guanciale, and it tastes much heartier. Bar Stuzzichini's erred so much on the side of gentleness that it tasted more like a marinara sauce.

Vegetarians should rejoice, because some of the best dishes here are meat- and fish-free, like the orecchiette with cauliflower and breadcrumbs, which was wonderfully garlicky. Likewise, the pasta and chickpeas, which is more of a soup, was perfectly prepared, with both the noodles and chickpeas having a nice al dente texture.

Two pieces of cake - the chocolate and the orange-scented olive oil cake - were devoured almost before I could capture their existence on film. They were both dense, very fresh, and intensely flavored.

On the way out, BFast, an editor at a fashion magazine, donned a rather unusual khaki cloak with double breasted buttons running down where the sleeves would have been.

"It's the Hound of the Baskervilles!" Marciano cried.

"I have a mystery for you to solve," B.Fast said. "Where are my arms?"

A satisfying evening, though not as heart-poundingly thrilling as the time we sat next to Howard Stern and Beth Ostrosky at Shorty's.32 a while back.

"It just so much cooler because they're both here," Lina said. She would know; she's a "radio personality." How is a radio personality different than a regular personality? Does one lose one's personality as soon as one is off air? Not in this case.

This is another fun place with some interior design problems. The lampshades were like something you would be forced to put in your apartment on an interior design show, only to take them down as soon as the decorator left the building. Keep your eyes below lamp-level, however, and you'll find a cool space with party-boy music on the stereo and a vibe reminiscent of Red Cat, though chef Josh Eden comes to Shorty's.32 from working with Jean-Georges, not Jimmy Bradley.

The food is less problematic than the decor. Creamy, luscious Jerusalem artichoke soup was met with a hallelujah chorus. The pork belly was good, though it needed some more oomph. Even better were the truly legumey beans served alongside - these tasted as fresh and gently cooked as California raw cuisine.

Cavatelli would be the best of the appetizers were I not accursed with a strong dislike of truffles, which have infiltrated everything these days. Hand-rolled and homemade, this was the most sophisticated of the first courses.

As we strained to hear Howard Stern and Beth Ostrosky over music that approached rock concert decibel, the entrees dropped. Fish 'n' bacon, fish 'n' bacon, fish 'n' bacon: A great combination that gives you reason to eat fish all winter. Shorty's was the baked skate with bacon. On the opposite side of the fish spectrum was the sea bass, light and citrusy with just a little char. Quinoa on the side had a wonderfully nubbly texture to complement the delicate fish.

Is it lame to order chicken in a restaurant? Certainly not here - it's the best of the entrees, and it's downright decadent, buttery with a crispy skin and a garlicky aroma throughout. Short ribs were served boneless - a neat trick, especially since they had all the flavor of bone-in ribs but were much easier to eat.

My grilled New York strip steak was initially off-putting because it arrived already sliced. Since the age of seven or so I've liked to cut my own meat. Chalk it up to a weird pet peeve. But it went beautifully with the fries, which had a hint of bacon flavor to them. Mmmm... more bacon...

Like Bar Stuzzichini, Shorty's.32 satisfied. Good music, good food, good drinks, and good times. When it comes to dining of any kind, sometimes that's all you need.

Bar Stuzzichini
928 Broadway between 21st and 22nd Streets
New York, New York

199 Prince Street between Sullivan and MacDougal Streets
New York, New York