The Paleo Burger Speaks Italian at Via Carota: Review

It’s tempting to think of Via Carota’s chopped steak as a kind of paleo burger, stripped down to its meaty essentials, pandering to the New Yorkers who kick-start their days stirring organic, grass-fed butter into their coffee. But Via Carota, with its miniature orange trees and shelves of vintage knick knacks, isn’t the sort of place to cook on trend. No, look back, way back, and you’ll see the “svizzerina” is more like a piece of proto-burger history, a relic from simpler times, before the chopped steak made its great leap toward becoming a sandwich.

Chef Rita Sodi’s mother cooked her beef like this when she was a kid growing up in Tuscany. To recreate it, Sodi hashes raw strip steak to bits, shapes it into a thick puck, and caramelizes both sides. It’s served just a little bit rare in the center with nothing but salty pooling fat and a couple of sweet, creamy fried garlic cloves still in their husks. That’s all. Really, that’s the whole dish: tender, generously seasoned meat with crisp, charred edges. So, how to explain why it’s so satisfying and delicious?

Sodi and her partner and co-chef Jody Williams do a lot of this sort of thing at their newly opened Via Carota in the West Village, surprising you with one or two ingredients cooked masterfully, assembled in careful proportions—a few grilled sardines with crumpled, smoky escarole; long fresh noodles dressed in butter and sharp cheese with little pieces of ham. These dishes sound basic, but they're put together with attention to detail, then brought out swiftly with confidence and very little explanation.

The menu is rustic and Italian, involving pasta, grilled fish, and plenty of vegetable dishes. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg

The menu is long with crostini, meat, fish, and pasta, but pay close attention to the "verdure" because on any given night the vegetable section goes 15-deep and each is prepared quite differently. Recently, there was a clay round of still-bubbling cannellini beans in tomato sauce. And radicchio, frayed and charred at the edges, glistening with olive oil, hiding currants and pine nuts in its frills. One of my favorites was cold, lean, and sharp: chilled leeks and pickled shallots under a snow of bottarga. But I want to write a love letter to Via Carota’s cauliflower and cheese gratin, a version I believe all cauliflower-and-cheeses should be measured against from now on. It is piping hot, rich and densely creamy, but without obscuring the intensely sweet cabbage-y flavor of the vegetable.

Sometimes, you might wish for a little more. A glorious fried rabbit on fried bread, every nook golden and crisp, is exquisite. But after a few bites it seemed bare, as if missing some layer of texture or flavor to break up the crunchy, fried monotony. And I often wished that Via Carota’s service was sharper, especially when I wanted some Chianti with my chopped steak, but couldn’t manage to get anyone’s attention. In the end I shrugged it off, ate, and instead ordered a bit of amaro with dessert—golden, airy ricotta fritters, sparkling with sugar.

The room is glassy and faces Grove Street. It’s charming, reminiscent in small ways of both Williams’ Buvette and Sodi’s I Sodi. But the chairs here are tiny and wobbly, like what you’d find at an elementary school for hobbits. And the wine glasses are similarly squat, with stems so stubby they barely exist at all. The restaurant does not take reservations and the room is consistently packed. When you’re seated, at last, it should be so awful to get squashed right up against your fellow New Yorkers on dinky halfling chairs, but somehow it isn’t. If you can figure out a spot for your bag and coat, it’s mostly lovely.

A recent special: Excellent grilled sardines served on the bone. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg

Maybe it’s because Glenn Miller is playing “In the Mood” and the couple at the table next to me is holding hands, reminiscing about some New Year’s Eve party they went to when they were young. Maybe it’s because the Manhattans are properly freezing cold, served off a silver tray by a gruff and handsome Frenchman. Mostly, though, I think it has to do with this clutter of perfectly grilled fish and roasted vegetables, with the sweetbreads and artichokes laid out on soft polenta, with the gnocchi under a blanket of hot, creamy gorgonzola. These are simple pleasures and night after night Via Carota makes them look effortless. Of course, none of this is effortless. For unfussy food like this to shine brightly, it requires precision and technique and style.

Via Carota has all of these things. Get past the no-reservation system, which may be infuriating but isn’t particularly complicated, and there’s a timeless, bunless, impossibly delicious chopped steak waiting for you on the other end. Whether or not you’ll have a glass of wine to drink with it, that’s a different story.

Tejal Rao is the New York restaurant critic for Bloomberg. Follow her on Twitter @tejalrao and Instagram @tejalra or email her at [email protected]

From left to right, chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg

Via Carota is at 51 Grove Street (West Village); viacarota.com

Rating: 2/4 Stars (Very Good)

What to Order: Chopped steak ($19); Grilled radicchio ($12); Leeks with bottarga ($12); Salsify in brown butter ($12); Grilled sardines ($17); Cauliflower gratin ($12); Fricasse of sweetbreads and artichokes ($18)

Who’s Next to You: Couples who live in the West Village; women in oversize sweaters and floppy, wide-brimmed felt hats (note, there’s nowhere to put these); I Sodi and Buvette regulars; novelists who live in Brooklyn.

Need to Know: Via Carota does not take reservations (except in special circumstances, for larger groups) and the dining room is full by 6:30. At dinnertime, arrive early or expect a wait! This weekend, the restaurant plans to launch breakfast and lunch.

Soundtrack: Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Glenn Miller Band.