To what do we attribute the immediate, somewhat startling popularity of the new West Village trattoria Rosemary’s, which has been packed to its carefully hewn, white-painted, rustico rafters since opening, a couple of months back, in the tastefully remodeled shell of an old burned-out party-supplies store? “Maybe it’s the cutesy name,” opined one of my guests as we furtively watched Cameron Diaz herself pick at a collection of carefully arranged lettuce leaves in a far corner of the room. Possibly it’s the location, on a prime corner of West 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue that Keith McNally lusted after for many years, before the local community board denied him a liquor license. Or maybe it’s the impressive, much-publicized, state-of-the-art roof garden upstairs, which (as your waiter will tell you) produces enough healthful zucchini, dandelion greens, and fresh tomatoes in late summertime to feed a whole army of porkpie-hat-wearing weekend locavores.
Certainly cocktails aren’t the key to Rosemary’s success (it’s a beer-and-wine-only joint), or the service, which tends to be focused and diligent early on but grows increasingly frayed as the bronze-cheeked, designer-clad hordes flood through the door, looking like they’ve just alighted, en masse, from the Jitney. But Rosemary’s proprietors—who also run the tastefully appointed West Village hangout Bobo—have a knack for curating a pleasant room, albeit in an airbrushed, Martha Stewart kind of way. They’ve placed decorative pots of herbs around the tall barnlike space and hung the beams with strings of festive lights. There’s a large bar area in the back of the room, where you can loiter at tall café tables, sipping glasses of chilled Lambrusco (the wines all sell for the uniform, easy-to-remember prices of $10 per glass and $40 per bottle). And on temperate evenings, when the waiters open the tall windows, a babble of noise spills out onto the sidewalk, as it might in a popular, over-touristed Italian café.
Rosemary’s chef, Wade Moises, studied under the high priest of the modern Italian rustico movement, Mario Batali (at Babbo and Lupa), and manages to imbue the familiar, often numbing procession of small-plate primi dishes (formaggi, vegetables and salads, and that great totem of rustic cooking, the salumi board) with panache. The best of the salumi is the housemade testa, which has the loose, faintly gamy consistency of a first-rate headcheese. The braised octopus is shaved onto the plate, interestingly, in thin salumi-like slices, and you can complement it with three kinds of toasty focaccia (try the focaccia di recco with gooey stracchino cheese), along with an impressive selection of verdure vegetable plates, at least a few of which (the dandelion greens served with beets and hazelnuts, the zucchini crudo) come from the garden upstairs, according to our waiter.
The pastas at Rosemary’s aren’t showy by the elaborate standards of the great rustico pasta palaces of today (there are only five on the menu), but they’re focused, vibrantly flavored, and professionally cooked in a steady, crowd-pleasing kind of way. The soft, plump cavatelli I devoured one evening were wreathed in a nice seasonal mix of asparagus, garden peas, and melted ricotta cheese, and the chitarra alla carbonara (perfectly al dente, and a relative bargain at $13) was properly yolky, the way the Romans like it, and scattered with crushed pepper and salty, smoky nuggets of guanciale. The respectable versions of spaghetti al pomodoro and orecchiette are both enlivened with more fresh veggies from the roof (tomatoes and basil on one, broccoli rabe on the other), although the dish we couldn’t stop eating at our table was the linguine, which Moises tosses with a creamy Parmesan sauce and flavors with the faintest hint of pickled chile and preserved lemon.
As dinner progresses in the jammed, increasingly riotous space, however, the food at Rosemary’s takes a more prosaic turn. With the exception of a couple of robust “to share” dishes, most of the entrées (a watery vegetable soup, pork tenderloin, that old rustico standby brick-flattened chicken) seem to have been designed with a kind of slapdash expediency in mind. My purplish helping of skirt steak had a limp, even funky taste to it, and most of the seafood in the enticing-looking acqua pazza to-share platter (shrimp, mussels, and scallops, served over large chunks of toast) was overcooked. The pork tenderloin (with piles of fresh fennel) was a nice dish, but the lamb leg (with snap peas and, yes, more assorted rooftop vegetables) was curiously devoid of lamby taste, and the salty cuts of chicken and beef in the giant carne misti seemed to have been brined and marinated for a week too long.
The mood at Rosemary’s is more sedate at lunchtime, when it’s possible to sit by the tall, sunny windows next to the sidewalk and sample the surprisingly eclectic Italian wines by the glass (nineteen reds, fifteen whites) in some semblance of peace. There are a variety of garden salads available for the downtown-ladies-who-lunch set, and a selection of toasty panini, artfully stuffed with chunks of braised lamb shoulder and honeyed ricotta, or soppressata, or layers of melted mozzarella, basil, and garden tomatoes, all for $12 apiece. There’s nothing very artful about the meager, premade desserts, however, which include an overchilled hazelnut semifreddo, a listless rendition of tiramisu, and a collection of Italian cookies thrown together on a plate. So get one of the artisanal formaggi, if you’re still in a rustic mood after all that rooftop roughage, or the olive-oil cake, which is shaped like a tiny cupcake and dressed with a spoonful of properly summery blueberry compote.
18 Greenwich Ave., nr. W. 10th St.; 212-647-1818
Hours: Dinner daily 5 p.m. to midnight. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 4:30 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $25; entrees, $12 to $80.
Ideal Meal: Focaccia, vegetable plates, cavatelli with garden peas or linguine with preserved lemon, cheese or olive-oil cake.
Note: Italian-wine geeks should pay attention to the interesting rosés, especially the Bardolino Chiaretto from the Veneto.
Scratchpad: One star for the pastas and another for the bounty of the rooftop garden. Subtract a star for blasé entrées and the hectic, Hamptons-like scene.