Celeste: The Italian Restaurant Every Neighborhood Should Have (But Doesn't)
502 Amsterdam Avenue (b/n 84th and 85th; map); 212-874-4559; celestenewyork.com
Setting: Small, warm, neighborhood trattoria
Service: Super friendly—not the kind of place to go if you want to be left alone
Compare To: The ideal neighborhood Italian restaurant in your mind
Must-Haves: Ricotta ravioli, eggplant involtini, cheese plate
Cost: Appetizers $8 to $12, pizzas/pasta $11 to $14, mains $16 to $19.50
Recommendation: Recommended. If old school, no fuss Italian is what you're after, it delivers. Like Little Italy with better food and less kitsch.
"You want a bottle of red wine or white tonight? Or maybe rosé for the weather," our waitress asked shortly after wedging us into a four-top no bigger than a couple of folded newspapers. Her delivery was spectacularly close to the Billy Joel song lyrics, which may have subconsciously influenced me into spending the rest of the meal thinking to myself, this has got to be the most neighborhood-Italian-y of neighborhood Italian restaurants in the city. I have a couple of friends who got married two weeks ago and used to live on 84th and Amsterdam. I asked them if they'd ever been. "It's where we had our first date!" said the newlywed wife. It's that kind of a place—one that engenders equal parts pride and nostalgia.
A wood-fired pizza oven illuminates the back wall behind the counter as you walk in and chewy slices of Tuscan bread with peppery olive oil wait for you at the tables. They're sometimes stale, but that's part of the charm—besides, you don't want to fill up on them, for there is far better food to be found on the menu.
If you get there any time after 7 p.m. pretty much any night of the week, you'll get asked by Carmine Mitroni—the thickly-accented, vest-wearing owner—gently but firmly to stand in the corner under their greenhouse awning until a table opens up for you, but don't worry—you can get that bottle of red any time you want, and the wine (no matter what color you choose) is reasonable, the pours are generous, and there's only one shape of glass available.
The restaurant has been open for a little over a decade, but I would believe it if you told me it was twice as old. Neither the space nor the menu show any of the trappings that the new wave of retro red sauce Italian restaurants ironically take part in (think Rubirosa or Parm), nor the Epcot Center-esque qualities of old school Little Italy joints; Celeste's purposefully stark hominess is natural and inviting. Its charm is as unavoidable as Carmine himself, who at one moment will be outside helping a passerby with a suitcase, the next will be introducing himself to the visiting son of a regular patron, the next talking a mile-a-minute about the cheese he personally smuggles in from Italy on his monthly trips.
There is red sauce on the menu, and it's a good one—bright, fresh, and sweet with a touch of gently browned garlic—but you won't find Little Italy-style chicken parm or spaghetti and meatballs. Instead it gets scattered with basil and folded into baked gnocchi ($11), or cooked down on top of a pizza margherita ($13). The latter, with a nicely charred crust and fresh flavor (marred only by slightly rubbery mozzarella) was probably the best pizza in the neighborhood back when Celeste first opened.
Heck, it's probably still the best pizza in the neighborhood, but that really says more about the neighborhood that Celeste's pizza. When was the last time you saw a true, compartmentalized, four-quadrant Quattro Stagioni pizza on a New York menu? They've got one, and people were ordering it all around us. I involuntarily did a quick scan for Brenda and Eddie and made a mental note to try the pizza next time I came in.
The red sauce makes its best case in the eggplant involtini ($11) where it comes ladled thick, a stack of pecorino and prosciutto-stuffed eggplant nestled deeply into it. There's more olive oil than you can hope for (or want to know about), making it an instant trip to Siciliy so good that you'll probably find yourself asking for a spoon to give yourself an advantage over your table mates in getting at the sauce.
Other appetizers include some fine, tender mussels sautéed in white wine ($12), or a salad of raw shaved baby artichokes and parmesan ($13), an excellent spring salad with a fresh, bright crunchiness and just a hint of artichoke's bitter astringency.
There's a fried side to the menu, if that's the kind of mood you're in. It's got golden nuggets of egg-battered buffalo ricotta ($10) which Sam Sifton called "wonderful" and "light as a cloud" in the Times a decade ago. Mine were light, but had a bit too much color on its eggy batter, giving it a mildy sulfurous aroma. Much better is the Fritto Misto di Pesce ($13), which should really be called calamari fritti, as there's naught but a few token shrimp tossed in amongst the crisp, grease-free rings.
Make sure to add the extra buck for a side of red sauce!
The entrées are serviceable and generous, but are the least exciting part of the menu. A pounded, almond-crusted chicken cutlet the size of half a hubcap is tender and totally reasonable for its $16 price tag. The $19.50 slab of veal piccata is similarly proportioned, and comes with some excellent crunchy fried potatoes that recall the slightly crunchier version you'll find at the Spotted Pig.
Speaking of the Spotted Pig, the single best item on Celeste's menu is a near taste-alike to the Pig's signature ricotta gnudi. Celeste's ricotta and spinach ravioli is one of the rare perfect plates of pasta I've met. Ultra-wide ravioli that cuts with a firm bite but quickly melts on the tongue to reveal its gently seasoned ricotta core. The sauce is a buttery emulsion seasoned with sage and just a hint of truffle oil—a good, light touch with truffle oil is a rarity in restaurants—and it comes topped with grated pecorino.
The ravioli is a triple-dairy hit that I couldn't stop going back to, though the Vermicelli alla Vongole ($14) was a strong temptation. It takes a certain level of old world guts to serve dried pasta dressed with nothing but clam juices, garlic, and olive oil in New York city, but this is the kind of dish that feels like its been going steady since the summer of '75 and shows no signs of ever changing.
The desserts—a tender and creamy ricotta cheesecake and a fine looking tiramisu—are good, but If you've got any sense at all, you'll order the cheese plate. Served with an utter lack pretension and pomp, you will not find a finer selection of Italian cheeses anywhere in the city. Heck, I didn't even recognize the names of over half the perfectly ripe, well-rested, smuggled cheeses on my $20, ten-cheese, medium-sized plate (it also comes in small and large versions at $10 and $30, respectively).
It's not easy taking notes at the rate the Carmine speaks, but pay attention to the last bit he finishes because those are important instructions: taste the cheeses clockwise. Start with a small bite of plain cheese. Then take a second bite of cheese with a bit of the homemade compote or syrup it's paired with (every cheese has a different pairing). Think about it before moving on. There are times when you may feel rushed or jostled at Celeste, but when you've got that cheese plate in front of you, it's as if the whole restaurant knows you're not to be bothered.
It's all part of the familiar movement of a neighborhood spot that knows its customers' needs and celebrates its idiosyncrasies earnestly and without affectation. I'd never been to Celeste before a month ago, but it already feels like an old familiar place. Let's hope this one ends better than the song.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.