Angolo Soho, which opened not long ago among the boutiques and nameless Euro bars clustered like coral along the bottom end of West Broadway, appears on first inspection to be the kind of place you might stumble into as a dazed, bedraggled tourist looking for a meal at the end of a long and disorienting shopping day. The exposed-brick walls are decorated with random, forgettable pieces of art. The menu is filled with comfortingly generic items (fritti misti, a pork chop, tagliatelle with Bolognese ragù), and the tables are outfitted with orange café chairs that look like they’ve been purchased on sale at some Ikea remnant store on the outskirts of Milan. There’s a potted white orchid on the bar, and next to the bar is Emilio, who appears to be Angolo Soho’s owner, or maybe its maître d’ (or maybe both). As you wearily open the menu, Emilio trolls among the half-filled tables in the time-honored style, regaling his patrons with the day’s “chef’s specialties” in an operatic baritone.
Unlike at countless other sleepy Italian tourist joints around New York City and the globe, however, you’d be advised to listen closely to the chef’s specialties at this modest, unprepossessing little restaurant. Our fritti misti, when it arrived, wasn’t the usual assemblage of soggy, overgreased squid rings with a withered wedge of lemon on the side. At Angolo Soho, they serve a tempura-light combination of shrimp and calamari tossed inventively with fennel and bits of crisped cherry peppers for an extra-spicy kick. Instead of the usual swamp of olive oil and garlic, the fresh steamed clams here are smothered in an addictively creamy mustard sauce laced with oregano. You’ll also find a fine example of swordfish crudo on the antipasti menu (touched with oranges and crunchy farro), and a bowl of fettuccine alla carbonara that is so nourishing it caused one of my freeloading food-blogger guests to put down his fork in quiet wonder. “I’d actually pay my own money for this,” he said.
The Emilio at Angolo Soho turns out to be Emilio Bagnoli, who’s patrolled the front of the house at numerous old-time Italian joints around town, including the storied Da Silvano. His chef, Michael Berardino, is a veteran of forward-thinking rustico establishments like Dell’anima and Cannibal, and together they’ve managed to create a homey neighborhood restaurant with an updated but still robust feel. In addition to the fritti misti, you’ll find artfully reimagined old standards like soft ribbons of beef tongue with salsa verde, and an elegant prosciutto tasting comprising three kinds of ham—Parma, San Daniele, and La Quercia—on the varied antipasti menu. The kitchen turns out a variety of housemade sausages (try the Biroldo blood sausage), and if you’re not enamored with the funky version of trippa alla Napoletana (we weren’t), I’d recommend the quail, which Berardino roasts to a gentle crispness and balances on a farro salad tossed with dates.
Most of the pastas at Angolo Soho (“Angolo” refers to the restaurant’s corner location) aren’t as accomplished as those at the grand, multi-star pasta palaces around town, but if you’re looking for a little sustenance while wandering this carb-challenged shopping mecca, you could do worse. The pasta experts at my table had trouble dissecting the clunky version of Ligurian-style pesto (made with thin trenette noodles, string beans, and too many potatoes), but nobody complained much about the serviceable tagliatelle Bolognese. Berardino’s lumpen version of fusilli with braised pork ragù Napoletana is nowhere near as refined as the iteration popularized by Michael White, so stick to the old classics, like the perfectly al dente spaghetti alla vongole, or the aforementioned carbonara, which is scattered with salty nuggets of pancetta and crowned with a single raw, vividly orange egg yolk.
Once the primi dishes are cleared away, Emilio will materialize in his well-tailored sport coat to sing the praises of entrées like the double-cut pork chop (“It is the great specialty of our chef!”), which Berardino finishes with a sour-and-sweet combination of cherry peppers, honey, and caramelized fennel. The Tuscan-style rib eye for two (“It comes from LaFrieda, of course”) isn’t worth its staggering $130 Soho sticker price, so order the Sardinian-style lamb loin instead, or the pollo alla diavola, which Berardino rubs with paprika and garnishes—in inventive Mediterranean style—with roasted eggplant and yogurt. The entrée my freeloading guest couldn’t stop nattering about, however, was that old locavore staple tilefish, which is here crisped in butter and served over a soupy mash that, on the night we tried it, included sweet late-summer corn, arugula, and a tangy spoonful of tomato agrodolce.
With its problematic location (in a seemingly doomed space that was most recently home to South Houston) and generic décor, Angolo Soho may never become a destination restaurant. But on my last visit, the dazed-looking tourists were outnumbered by fashionable local couples dressed for dinner and a couple of Italian families from the neighborhood who were feeding pasta to their children at the communal table in the middle of the room. The mostly Italian wine list is heavy on Tuscan and Piemonte reds, and if you don’t feel like paying $250 for a fancy ’04 Brunello, you can sample 26 of the bottles by the glass. The minimalist desserts—yogurt panna cotta, a thick chocolate budino, olive-oil cake topped, disastrously, with sea-salt gelato—won’t win any prizes. But if you happen to return to this satisfying little restaurant on another evening, Emilio will remember which one you liked, and which one you didn’t, and you can bet that he’ll also remember your name.
331 W. Broadway, nr. Grand St.; 212-203-1722
Hours: Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m., Sunday to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $17; entrées, $14 to $130.
Ideal Meal: Grilled quail or fritti misti, fettuccine alla carbonara, double-cut
pork chop, pollo alla diavola or tilefish, yogurt panna cotta.
Note: Cheese geeks, take note. There are seven artisanal Italian varieties to choose from, including an exotic housemade stracciatella garnished with bottarga.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the antipasti, carbonara, and the entrées (except the overpriced steak), minus a star for rest of the pastas and the desserts.
*This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.