Bestia and RivaBella

The two restaurants  offer different interpretations of Italian but speak the same language
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Where Bestia focuses on lesser cuts, RivaBella’s kitchen parries with an appreciation of premium ones, like when it slices gorgeously thick rounds of beef fillet for a carpaccio that has the soul of Langer’s pastrami. Yet just when you think he’s gone fancy, Angelini yanks you back to the rustic ideal. His roasted octopus tendrils with diced potatoes, slivers of dark olives, spicy tomato sauce, and pounded herbs so artfully elevates everyday ingredients, it compresses the essence of great Italian food into a single serving of antipasto. For the lunchtime panino, he layers thin-cut pork loin over strands of stewed kale, finishing it with guanciale, or cured pork cheek zabaione, an opulent flourish that has each element playing off the other, like the Azzurri in the ’06 World Cup.

The veteran chef isn’t interested in emphasizing region (Italian has moved on), yet the dishes that are least impressive at RivaBella appear to come from nowhere in particular. A swordfish steak laid over a dab of creamed spinach and encircled by a ribbon of red wine sauce registers as ambitious country club fare—and not even that when the waitstaff fails to clear the appetizer plates before the entrée arrives. At Bestia it isn’t so much the service that’s the problem; it’s the crush of people. Time can yawn like an abyss between courses (25 minutes for a scallop crudo with bottarga one evening). Would the margherita pizza be less soggy at its drooping center if it hadn’t been part of a furious rotation in the wood-burning oven? The octopus and calamari salad that’s supposed to have mushrooms and puntarelle, a wild form of chicory, is plopped down with two of the former and a single itsy-bitsy slice of the latter atop oil-drenched arugula—a messy rush job.

Conceptually, however, that salad reminded me a lot of the potato and octopus appetizer at RivaBella. Eat at these restaurants back to back (an occupational hazard in my line of work) and you see how connected they are. Menashe’s clarity—his insistence on primary flavors—is almost an homage to Angelini, whose best dishes are defined by precision and naturalness. You see it in the way both men use bread crumbs, too: Angelini suffuses his with fried herbs to make jumbo shrimp pop in a farro salad; Menashe considers them a savory thickening agent, bringing body to a little casserole of stewed cannellini beans in a fennel soffritto. But for neither chef are bread crumbs mere filler. The connection is evident in the pastas as well. The wire-thin strands of nettle pasta that Menashe bathes in mushroom ragù for the tagliolini al’ortica—you break the yolk of the poached egg at the center to complete the dish—seems the virtuosic descendant of Angelini’s airy spinach pappardelle with a chunky lamb sauce.

But Menashe’s greatest debt to Angelini might be that he met his wife and business partner, Genevieve Gergis, when she was a hostess at La Terza almost a decade ago. Today she’s the pastry chef at Bestia, creating homey desserts that dovetail with the rugged house style. The rice pudding she makes from aged Acquerello rice is toothsome enough to support notes of orange flower water and vanilla and, depending on the season, persimmon or cherries. Served in a glass container because it’s too fragile to unmold, her panna cotta cleaves at the touch of a spoon or, even better, when scooped with a Meyer lemon cookie. Sometimes Gergis brings out the desserts herself and puts them before customers in a gesture that comes off as all the more heartfelt because of the press of people in the dining room.

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