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Da Marcella Taverna: Best-in-class rustic Italian in the West Village

Veal and pork meatballs in San Marzano tomato sauce
Veal and pork meatballs in San Marzano tomato sauce
Naakai Addy

The popular fantasy of Italian food generally features long evenings spent over rich wine, impassioned conversation, and unaffected laughter. Despite New York's extensive Italian influences, however, the reality of the cuisine in this city tends to fall short.

Should you find yourself wandering down Houston one day, you may therefore be delighted to discover a tiny eatery called 'Da Marcella Taverna'. This intimate Italian dinner spot not only lives up to the fantasy of Italian food but exceeds it by far. Da Marcella exemplifies the excellence that can be achieved when chefs and restauranteurs exercise a balance of top-of-the-line expertise, clarity of vision, and the often elusive element of humility.

Modeled architecturally and conceptually after turn-of-the-19th century Italian tavernas, Owner Manuel Moreno and Executive Chef Francesco Mueses have crafted a stellar menu of rustic Italian dishes, many of which are from Moreno's own family recipes.

The Tagliatelle ala Bolognese, Da Marcella's most popular dish, is a prime example of the authentic, quintessential Italian recipes that make this place what it is. The proof is in the pudding--or the sauce, rather. Smooth and substantial, this slow-cooked Bolognese sits perfectly in between those two perilous extremes of bland and overpowering in flavor. It tastes like the Bolognese you'd always dreamed of but never dared anticipate in real life. Many restaurants excel at either the pasta or the sauce, but Da Marcella has truly made an art of both, landing these dishes somewhere in the middle of that Italian fantasy meal. Furthermore, to be able to enjoy a dish this exquisite for $10 is nothing short of a miracle.

If you're able to pull yourself away from the irresistible options on the pasta menu, even heartier fare can be found among the entrees. The Costa di Manzo Brasata al Barolo, braised beef short rib served with creamy polenta, is as delightfully fatty as you can possibly imagine. The same care is taken with the texture of the meat as it is with the pastas.

The Polpo Marinato alla Griglia is another clear standout. Though it's an appetizer, it is quite frankly good enough to stand on its own. The octopus is marinated in vinegar, red peppercorns and salt for three days before being stewed in the oven for an hour, grilled, and served with caperberries and sundried tomatoes. It is rare to find grilled octopus this tender and flavorful, particularly in the U.S.

Of course, no fantasy Italian meal is complete without wine and dessert. Both are in the hands of experts at Da Marcella. Wine director Alessandro Bandini, formerly sommelier and GM at Asellina, also serves as manager of Da Marcella. He adeptly facilitates a welcoming, engaging atmosphere for customers, many of whom are locals. The Dolci are prepared with similar expertise. Manuel Moreno, as owner of Bakery of New York in Long Island City, is no stranger to the intricacies of a fine dessert. The panna cotta in particular is heavenly, with an unbelievably delicate creaminess.

While Da Marcella has remained a well-kept neighborhood secret for over a year, that is sure to change, and soon. Given the size of the restaurant, the excellence of the food, and the astonishingly reasonable prices, it won't be long before getting a reservation becomes an epic feat. Whether you get there now or later, there is no doubt that Da Marcella Taverna is a hugely positive presence on the New York restaurant scene and is absolutely worth several visits.

Located at 142 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10012