RATING |

In a city already smothered in trattoria fever and retro red gravy, Marc Vetri's intimate townhouse dining room hovers above the rest with a magnetic vision for Italian cooking that melds rustic authenticity with a bold individual swagger.

Something as common as an antipasto becomes a thrilling showcase for his ideas, from sherry-charred brussels sprouts and saffron-poached cauliflower, to grilled wedges of smoked mozzarella and silky sheets of prosciutto peeled by the chef himself from the antique slicer beside your table.

It's hard to resist such bounty, even at $28. Likewise, I can rarely pass up any number of Vetri's classics - the cocoa-dusted chestnut fettuccine with boar ragu; the ethereal spinach gnocchi; the sublime turbot over crisp potatoes; the chocolate-polenta souffle; or the lavender gelato drizzled with hot olive oil. These are the powerfully good creations that have earned Vetri national recognition.

His ever-changing menus, though, reveal a chef at the height of his personal expression. His pit-roasted baby goat is the ultimate souvenir of the rustic Northern Italian cooking that inspires him. A hunk of it arrives on the bone over polenta on a wooden platter, the skin burnished to a mahogany crisp from hours of turning over smoldering mesquite wood.

And then there are the flights of whimsy. An Italian deconstruction of French onion soup tucks tangy Gruyere cheese into ricotta ravioli beneath brothy caramelized onions. Crumbles of venison sausage tumble with delicately sweet pears over pappardelle. And hot cauliflower flan harbors a heart of warm egg yolk that runs across the plate like sunshine flecked with black truffle.

But Vetri can also transform a humble bolognese with a key ingredient or two. So, what makes that simple ragu irresistible? "Lard," he says, "and lots of head meat from the pig."

Never mind. It's good.

If the cooking defies cliches, so too does the rest of the restaurant, which removes the starch from fine dining. The Vetri experience is by most measures grand gastronomy (just check your bill), from the great Italian cellar to the stellar service orchestrated by Jeff Benjamin, Vetri's co-owner and the city's best maitre d'.

And yet there is a natural informality to the simple yellow room, which recently annexed a handsome new vestibule. It is not uncommon to see diners in jeans (probably some famous director) laughing boisterously around the corner six-top as if they were in their own home.

But Mamma never cooked like this.