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Casellula Cheese & Wine Café
401 W. 52nd St. (at 9th Ave.)

I stumbled across Casellula Cheese & Wine Café on the first balmy evening in April when, for the first time in months, the breeze off the river felt like a refreshing stirring rather than a bone-chilling assault. Like insects hatching from their vertical hives, Manhattanites who had survived the winter were flooding the streets to eat and drink. For someone like me who is leery of crowds, it was all a bit much.

Fortunately, Casellula offers a welcome respite from the neighborhood’s chaos. The wine and cheese bar on West 52nd Street is just a stone’s throw from Ninth Avenue, but it feels light years away from the avenue’s motley agglomeration of restaurants and bars. It’s a classy establishment with a refined menu and friendly service and a great place to decompress with friends after a long day of work.

The first thing that struck me as I walked in the door was the pleasant pungency of cheese. This place takes its cheeses seriously. At the back of the restaurant, in a multi-tiered display case, a selection of cheeses of various shapes, colors and textures are displayed with the level of care typically afforded museum antiquities.

The rest of the restaurant is well designed and makes good use of space. A long bar on the side and another set of stools facing the windows accommodate ones and twos seeking a glass of wine and a nibble. A dozen or so tables in the center accommodate diners committed to a more substantial meal. The atmosphere is soothing: exposed brick, dim lights that generate a Vermeer glow and nice acoustics that envelop you with soft chatter. It’s what a Chelsea gallery party would be like if everyone were sitting.

The menu at Casellula is varied enough to suit any palate, and it offers enough basics to construct a satisfying dinner. Salads include a roasted beet salad with buffalo mozzarella, hazelnuts and a citrus red wine reduction ($13) and an endive salad with blue cheese, pear, macadamia nuts and sherry vinaigrette ($13). From there you can move on to sandwiches, such as a goose breast reuben ($12) and a “pig’s ass” sandwich ($12) or an assortment of sides, like peppadew peppers stuffed with mozzarella and speck ($7) and truffled cheese fries with wild mushrooms ($14).

But the real focus, of course, is on the cheeses. The entire backside of the menu lists nearly 50 different cheeses, most of them North American or European, all priced at $6. In the mood for something fresh? Try the pave sauvage, a French pasteurized goat cheese. Something creamy? Sample the robiola due latte, a “mushroomy” cow and sheep cheese from Italy. There is also a wide selection of semi-firm to hard cheeses, as well as “washed” cheeses (with rinds doused in brine, wine or spirits).

On the night I visited, the crowd at Casellula was sleek and sophisticated, abuzz with European languages and air kisses. Watching a bony model-type pop speck and cheese like candy, it raised that age-old question: How do these people stay so thin? After a couple of glasses of wine, the room’s glow deepened, and I realized I didn’t much care.

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