Stuck on Stecchino

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stecchino is italian for "toothpick," and while nothing on the menu includes these little wooden sticks, you will definitely need one after your meal. especially if the soup of the day is red onion ($6), a luscious, italian version of french onion soup with a strong burst of oregano. every day the homemade soup changes, so i can't promise they will serve it next time. if whatever they serve is half as good as the red onion, though, you will be in for a treat.

but soup isn't the only reason to breeze though stecchino's heavy doors and into the dark, candlelit bar. once inside, the staff tries its best to make guests

feel comfortable, whether seated at the thick wooden bar or in a cozy, cream-

colored booth. i started at the bottle-lined bar with a glass of the fruity gamay noir ($9) and was graciously transferred to a table once my guest arrived.

even though the restaurant was slow, the service remained sharp without being overly attentive. my cold-riddled companion waved off my suggestion of crispy fried oysters with remoulade ($12), but permitted an order of mashed artichoke mixed with salty manchego cheese wrapped with serrano ham ($6). coming off the sputini (snack) menu, the dish was fried with the ham acting as shell. the result is a slightly greasy, melt-in-your mouth turnover of rich meat and cheese. unfortunately, the artichoke got lost among the strong flavors of manchego and serrano, but it proved a warming and satisfying bite just the same. we also sampled the chicken liver mousse crostini ($5), which come two to an order. the silky pâté perfectly coated a 3-inch piece of crisp bread and tasted fresh, with a peppery bite at the end.

off the pasta menu, i found a new favorite dish in the fresh pappardelle ($14), which is served with a tender rabbit ragu. the ragu has a slightly smoky flavor from the tiny chunks of soppressata. the richness of the meat balanced nicely with the lightness from a scoop of fluffy herbed ricotta. i marveled at the addition of cured black olives, which rounded out the dish with a hint of vinegar and tang. the pork braciola turned out a tad too dry, despite the slathering of a dense marinara. my companion found the sauce heavy on the garlic and, despite its obvious freshness, it still managed to taste more like a really good jar of sauce from the grocery store than a quality homemade one.

a better bet is the boneless game hen with a luscious sage crème ($15). this dish comes with garlicky, red-pepper-laced broccoli rabe, which proved a nice green touch to the otherwise tomato- pasta- and meat-centic meal. we decided to add a little more green and got a side order of the sautéed brussels sprout leaves with toasted almonds ($6). the nuts were a nice take on a dish usually served with bacon, and by cutting down the little green heads to just leaves, the dish felt more airy and less dense then normal.

though we skipped the tempting hazelnut crème brûlée ($8) and the flourless chocolate torte with hot buttered rum bananas and caramel ($8), we left feeling contented by our food and the charming staff. with a stecchino in hand, and a smile on our faces, we made our way back into the blistering cold of winter a little more padded.



765 ninth ave., betw. 51st and 52nd streets


entrées: $12 to $15

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