Tweaked Italian at Trē

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By Ethan Wolff

imageWhen it comes to style, nobody beats the Italians. Flair, creativity, suavity—I found them all in long supply at L.E.S. newcomer Trē. To start, they’ve nailed the interior. The circa-1900 tenement brick is whitewashed, original ceiling beams exposed. Dangling bulbs cast flattering light. Coarse niches pried from the walls flicker with candlelight. A contemporary ceramic bust recalls Rome and updates it. The result is both romantic and rustic, thoroughly exorcising the vaguely-’70s-porn vibe of former tenant Pizzeria de Santo.

There are Arte around the Corner and Nero bloodlines here, with chef Giuliano Matarese coming off a stint at the latter. Matarese’s cooking is equal parts originality and refinement. Dishes are tailored to appeal to eye, nose, and tongue. This “tre” theme shows up in the buffalo mozzarella sampler. There are three iterations, plated as artistically as sushi. Preparations shift with the vagaries of the greenmarket, embellishing marshmallow-like clouds of cheese. On my visit, the duck prosciutto version was excellent, bedded on a corn and pomegranate relish built for Ceres’ palate. I liked the anchovy even better, the fish lustrous and bowed, skewered with a dropper full of anchovy oil, which made for a strange and compelling complement to the creamy cheese.

Non-Italian ingredients set sly casts to the flavoring. Lemongrass sparks the steamed mussels, with a tomato base like a Thai cioppino. That bread on the side? It was made for dunking in this broth. There are non-Italian preparations as well, like ravioli re-imagined as an empanada. One of my best bites of the night combined that ravioli’s golden skin, its warm chorizo and potato insides, a ring of pickled Bermuda onion, and a sliver of flatbread that came across like an ambrosial take on birdseed.

Matarese loves to play with texture. Soft butter beans are juxtaposed with chewy octopus and crisp blue corn tortillas. Beef tartar kind of scares me, but this one was a perfect combo of velvety meat and firm dried lotus roots. Hefty homemade cavatelli, flavored with smoky chipotle, is slathered in a bright broccoli rabe foam. The most WTF item on the menu is the sarde alla Piastra, which mixes a sardine with shaved fennel, pine nut-raisin relish, and…a slab of pink grapefruit. If I were a chemist, I doubt I could tell you how these flavors can possibly work together. But they do.

With savories this good, you’d think Trē would need a ringer to cover desserts, but Matarese excels there, too. Salad standbys oil and vinegar are transmuted into ice cream and drizzle respectively. I kept going back to a caprese cake, darkly flavored, with an addictive grainy texture courtesy of almond flour. Homemade cheesecake brings another threesome, this one a deft blend of cream cheese, crème fraîche, and ricotta cheese.

Where Pizzeria de Santo once parked a video game, Trē has an auxiliary wine rack. Wine is a major draw here, thanks to the taste of co-owner/sommelier Guido Venitucci. Small producers and biodynamic vintages dominate. There are Italian wines, of course, but Venitucci branches out into unlikely Austrian, Spanish, and Hungarian territories. An easy-to-parse wine list breaks out categories like “Spicy Plump Meaty” and “Silky Soft Seductive.” A new Monday Night Wine Swap allows guests to “re-gift” moldering bottles from their home collections, with Venitucci providing a comparable vintage in trade. I suggested inaugurating a game of “Stump the Sommelier.” Venitucci looked dubious.

Prices are reasonable by haute standards, and this despite a reliance on organic ingredients. Farm-fresh and local are the bywords. Where no self-respecting Italian could trust the Made in America label (the mozzarella or ricotta, say, or the flavor-saturated cherries that top the cheesecake), Old Country imports take over. From the quality, it’s clear Matarese has an in with his suppliers. The result, for once, is some actual substance accompanying the style of a new L.E.S. arrival.

QUICK BITES Cuisine: Tweaked Italian Vibe: Suave and romantic Occasion: Destination dinner, seal-the-deal date Damage: $130 for a three-course meal for two, including tax, tip, and a bottle of wine Reservations: Recommended Not to Be Missed: Mozzarella “Tre,” $12

173 Ludlow St. (Houston and Stanton Sts.) trenewyork.com 212-353-3353 Lower East Side