Before considering the allure of the two-year-old L’Artista trattoria, it’s nice to consider its location on the west side of Harlem in what is known as Sugar Hill, which derives its unofficial name from its offering of “The sweetness of life” “to the wealthy black residents who were part of what in the 1920s was called the Harlem Renaissance. These included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Thurgood Marshall, who lived within its ten blocks in some of Manhattan’s most beautiful and majestic townhouses. North of Columbia University in Hamilton Heights, the neighborhood is within sight of the Hudson River and so remote that it is exceptionally quiet and peaceful.
It therefore seems fitting that this small trattoria commemorates the artistic generosity of the neighborhood in its name L’Artista, as well as the artistry of chef German Rizzo, who opened the restaurant with Swiss musician-composer Daniel Schnyder. Born in Turin, Rizzo (with Southern roots in the family) worked all over Europe, then came to the United States to cook for the Cipriani group, then had his own restaurant in Queens. Here, in this rustic little corner of Sugar Hill, he cooks very personalized cuisine with both liveliness and generosity of spirit.
It starts with hot, puffy buns with two dips that pair well with the colorful line of Italian cold cuts ($ 21) and cheeses ($ 20). There are pizzas on the menu, and I loved the one made with burrata, Parma prosciutto, fresh tomato and arugula ($ 19), whose yeast crust is just as important for its appeal and flavor as the top-notch toppings. Keeping it simple means a burrata platter with ripe cherry tomatoes and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar ($ 18).
Just about any dish can serve either antipasti to share or as a main course. So the big ball of rice the size of a baseball Arancini alla siciliana ($ 15) is chock full of short rib ragù, stringy mozzarella, and green peas. Beef meatballs ($ 19) called polpette are served with a rich tomato sauce with peas and served with toasted country bread. Finish one on your own and you’re good to go for the night. Ditto for the grilled octopus with asparagus, olives, almonds and cauliflower puree ($ 19).
And so . . . pasta. You won’t find better in New York, all freshly made with precise thickness and texture, to keep them beautifully al dente and mixed with just the right amount of sauce. Large egg noodles called pappardelle are the classic entanglement for a formidable ragù bolognese, besciamella cream, tomato and a good dose of Parmigianino ($ 22). The ravioli are light and delicate, stuffed with fall butternut squash and sprinkled with sweet green peas and garnished with lemon ($ 23), while still being chubby agnolotti needed nothing more than a lavish of fine melted butter and a little sage ($ 22). Cacio and tartufo ($ 23) combines excellent spaghetti with tangy pecorino, a crunch of black pepper, Parmesan, and shavings of white Abruzzo truffles (which aren’t as expensive as those from Umbria). But the risotto is a triumph: superbly cooked moist rice, topped with broth and served with butter and mascarpone, as close to perfection as you’ll find anywhere ($ 24).
There are a few meat, poultry and seafood products, even “Il Burger” ($ 19), including the Cornish hen roasted with peppers, onions and potatoes ($ 29) and the impeccably grilled branzino. ($ 25) drizzled with olive oil and lemon.
Have at least one dessert, which depends on what Rizzo has decided to make for the day, and if you ask for espresso as he drinks it, you will get it.
L’Artista wines are chosen with the same personal taste as everything else, so you should take the advice of Rizzo or the knowledgeable waiters on what is good in your price range.
The local regulars of L’Artista are legion, but those who have a flair for the very authentic, very generous Italian food should make their way to Sugar Hill. And yes, you can take the A train.
142 Hamilton Place
Open for dinner every night and for brunch Sat & Soleil.