If you are looking to find where the locals go to eat Italian food in Manhattan, leave the credit cards behind and head downtown. Some of the best homemade Italian in New York will not take your Amex, even if it’s black. But no need to max out your withdrawal at the ATM, these neighborhood spots are so friendly on the wallet you could almost pay for dinner with the change hiding in the couch cushions.
Malatesta Trattoria: The servers at Malatesta in the West Village may occasionally have a hard time with English, but at least their Italian-heavy accents indicate you are in for the real deal. Open late, the restaurant often takes names for half hour waits long past 10pm on the weekends. But once you get a table, preferably outdoors on a nice night, rewards come quickly in the form of speedy service and bargain house wine by the carafe. Pastas are mostly homemade; tagliatelle comes in a solid rendition of Bolognese while cheese ravioli appears slicked with a sheen of pink sauce. For such an authentically Italian crew the food leans more toward Italian-American but that is no insult- whatever the provenance the food is good and worth the wait.
Bianca: Bianca has long been my personal go-to for deliciously inexpensive Italian food, specifically the kind heavy on the cheeses and cured meats for which the Emilia-Romanga province is famous. The lasagna is unparalleled in the city: paper thin sheets of homemade pasta are stacked layer upon fine layer with a mortar of meat sauce and béchamel sealing together the towering stack. Bianca does fine work with seafood as well, whether in their simply grilled fish of the day or in the frutti di mare tagliatelle: a pile of homemade noodles studded with mussels, clams, squid, and shrimp with just a bit of tomato and white wine to hold the dish together. Like Malatesta, cash is king and waits can be long, but at least here you can head next door for a glass of wine or two at Von and George, possibly the city’s friendliest maître d’, will come get you when a table becomes available. Oh, and in a city that sways with the ups and downs of the market, Bianca is a fortress of homemade food seemingly built to withstand any storm- its prices have not changed since the doors opened eight years ago.
Frank Restaurant: A haven for East Village hipsters, Frank is the kind of place to dig into solid Italian-American fare and not care for one instant from which province each pasta hails. Uncle Tony’s Handmade Gnocchi are a favorite, soft and pillowy with a deeply flavored red sauce. Tagliata Toscana- skirt steak Italian style, marinated, grilled, and thinly sliced- is nicely charred on the outside and still pink on the inside. Best of all is the Frank “pay by consumption” program. Frank is willing to open any bottle on their extensive list and the guest in turn is free to drink as much or as little as he or she pleases. When dinner is done, the server will measure the amount consumed and charge accordingly. This works out well for couples who don’t want to drink a whole bottle, or groups who’d like to sample a few difference wines of the quality one would get ordering by the bottles but without having to commit to more than a glass, or even half a glass, at a time.
In the case of these downtown favorites, no credit card is no problem. The food is so cheap and cheerful that you might start wishing more restaurants went cash only. You might just get used to leaving the plastic behind.
Malatesta Trattoria, 649 Washington St., New York, NY 10014
Bianca, 5 Bleecker St. #1, New York, NY 10012
Frank Restaurant, 88 Second Ave, New York, NY 10003