Going on a date to a winebar, especially a winebar in the East Village, is a little like giving your sweetie a dozen roses on Valentine's Day: just because it's conventional doesn't mean it's not a good idea.
Fashioned to resemble a wine cave, complete with pockmarked concrete walls and dramatic arches, this dimly lit restaurant does brisk business: nearly every table was booked on a recent chilly weeknight. Still, as we dipped focaccia in olive oil and cracked pepper and drank our glasses of lacryma christi del vesuvio, we couldn't help but wonder: doesn't exceedingly charming, extremely romantic In Vino smell a little like a basement? Fortunately, the arrival of our first appetizer, polpette al ragú ($10), replaced thoughts of mustiness with squeals of joyfulness.
Our second appetizer was just as tasty. "Light" isn't a word often applied to fried artichokes; however, the carciofi alla giudea ($12) were daintily fried on the bottom, yet still creamy on top, where the heart had been doused in olive oil. It was like eating a chip with the dip built in. Super Bowl caterers, take note.
Back to the polpette: racquetball-sized, they had been quick-fried, then oven baked, producing a pleasantly resistant crust. Unlike some meatballs, these were dense and airless, absolutely circular, with every molecule of beef ground and packed in tight. Everything had been smothered in ragú, a tomato-based sauce splashed with red wine; that all got covered in shavings of Parmesan. A hefty pour of red, a plate of these, some nice conversation—and you could be all set for the night.
We, on the other hand, pressed on. First, the pappardelle con i gamberi arrabbiati ($17). Arrabbiati was right: flecks of crushed red pepper gave the dish a substantive kick, while chopped parsley and halved cherry tomatoes soothed. The shrimp were petite, though generously distributed.
True to its name, penne e salsiccia ($14) featured sweet sausage in a creamy, tomato sauce tossed with penne and chopped peppers. Like the too-thick-to-slurp pappardelle, the penne was al dente, all the better to soak up the sauce and contrast with the rugged meat. In addition to pasta, there are fairly standard options for secondi, including salmone ai capperi (salmon with capers) and tagliata toscana (grilled skirt steak); both $18.
The carefully curated, rather eclectic wine list includes several that have received a distinction of excellence from Gambero Rosso, perhaps the leading Italian authority on such matters. If you ask, the bartender will certainly tell you what he's "been digging lately" from the almost 200 choices. On Sundays, In Vino offers 1/2-price select bottles. (Recently the restaurant has begun serving weekend brunch, with $8-12 entrees.) Some wines are also offered by the glass and by the quartino—whose third-of-a-bottle yield is exactly enough if you're out on a school night or simply not looking to get swept off your feet.
As the night went on and more people arrived, In Vino filled with chatter and cheer, with some couples conspiring over candlelight and others simply basking in the glow of good food. It's best for an easy, uncomplicated date.