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Bon appetito

Allegro is both old-fashioned and forward-thinking



It's somewhat heartening to find a restaurant as old-fashioned as Allegro located across the street from One Midtown Kitchen, a concept so "concepty" it launched a whole empire of concepts. I don't mean Allegro is old-fashioned in the sense that it's behind the times. I mean it's old-fashioned in that it takes service and hospitality -- remember those? -- seriously, that the room is refined but not flashy, and that it serves hearty Italian fare.

You are likely to hear quite a lot of "bon appetito!"s at Allegro, as well as a lot of fast-talking server recommendations and niceties. For the most part, servers know this menu backward and forward, and if they are pushing certain items it never comes across as too pushy. It's a brand of service you don't see much any more, and if it is a tad overwrought it is also charming. A complimentary half-glass of Prosecco starts the meal as an early indictor of the hospitality to come.

Chef Jose Rego came to Allegro after a stint as chef at Sotto Sotto. The first indication he's brought that restaurant's quality aesthetic to his current project comes with the bread, in the form of three simple accompaniments: light, sweet fennel spread; simple rice beans with mirepoix; and quality olive oil.

Rego's traditionalist menu of antipasto, salads, pastas, meats and seafood is best when he takes simple flavors and tries for contrast, but leaves ingredients to their own devices. An appetizer of cubed pears and Pecorino cheese, so similar in color and shape they are indistinguishable to the eyes, is offset by subtle honey and black pepper. It's the kind of rustic Italian cooking that feels modern as well, and the sweet, salty and sharp flavors kept my attention through the whole generous portion.

Pasta ranges from classically straightforward to inventive. An appetizer of beef ravioli is so simple it almost vanishes from memory. It could use a kick of fresh herbs to really tickle the senses. (I didn't detect truffle oil, which the menu advertises.) But the yielding fresh pasta and meaty interior are pure comfort. On the other hand, the cannelloni Allegro with crab, fennel and mascarpone hits all kinds of unexpected notes. The crab filling starts out almost overwhelming, but after a few bites melds into the lemon, herbs, and other flavors for a complex and intriguing finish.

Seafood dishes are highlights. The scallop carpaccio appetizer is masterful, the sweet scallop offset by vegetal celery and microgreens, then perked up by lemon. One entree consists of a large portion of perfectly cooked grouper over ultrafresh winter greens, and is surrounded by the most successful orange sauce I've ever had – not creamy or syrupy, but thick, savory and piquant. The dish is one of the most seasonal items on the menu, and by itself makes a great argument for the practice of seasonality, even in winter.

One of Rego's signature dishes, of pappardelle with rabbit meatballs and monkfish, is interesting but the surf-and-turf weirdness seems a little unnecessary. The meatballs are spicy, gamy and delicious on their own, and the monkfish confuses the dish. It's not bad, certainly not as bad as you might imagine meatballs and fish mushed up together might be, but I'd prefer the pasta without the fish. The flavorful meatballs may not garner as much attention, but the dish would be just as successful and less schizophrenic.

There are places of bluntness on the menu. Grilled chicken with polenta and ratatouille is fine, but melted cheese over the chicken and a lack of brightness doesn't mesh with the subtle complexity of Rego's other dishes. Desserts also fall into the unsubtle, crowd-pleasing realm, with walls of tempered chocolate and out-of-season berries taking up too many plates. But care has been taken – the results would just be more successful if simplicity and seasonality were given some weight.

The all-Italian wine list is a delight, with as much emphasis on interesting whites as reds. Gavi, Vernaccia, Verdicchio and Falanghina take their place among the easy Pinot Grigios and Chardonnays. Much of the list is available by the glass.

In the end, it's not Rego's food that seems old-fashioned. In fact, he walks an interesting line between invention and tradition, and seems to stride strongest when he veers on the side of following his muse rather than going in a strictly traditional direction. But pair that with the understated, almost dated look of the place – and the courteous, smooth service – and you've got an Italian restaurant of the grand old variety, one that is as welcoming as the food is delicious.

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