I almost made the mistake of not visiting Rafele, a Neapolitan restaurant that opened in April. It’s getting harder and harder to get excited by yet another rustic Italian spot. Yet I’m glad we went: It turns out Rafele is pretty good.
There’s a broad frontage and an outdoor café on a not-so-charming stretch of Seventh Avenue South. The casual 65-seat dining room is decorated with the usual Italian knick-knacks, and there’s a wide open kitchen with a brick oven, used mostly for rotisserie meats, though there are pizzas too. The room ought to be a little less bright.
The menu is not overly long, with about half-a-dozen choices of antipasti ($11–16), insalate ($12–14), primi ($16–18), secondi ($25–27), and contorni ($7). The Filosofia, printed at the bottom, is practically de rigeur these days—the usual commitment to work with local farmers, markets, and purveyors.
We reserved on OpenTable but decided eat at the bar, where we started with a bounty of breads with eggplant spread (above right). We drank wines by the glass; but for the record, there’s an all-Italian four-page list, with plenty of options at $50 or less—our benchmark for this type of place—with a few Super-Tuscans at the high end, should you want them.
Polpettine, or meatballs ($13; above left) were excellent, a veal-and-beef mix in a light tomato sauce. Cavolfiore, or cauliflower ($13; above right), billed as a salad, is served warm, with blackcurrants, pignoli nuts, and bread crumbs. It was a startlingly good dish, not like anything I’ve seen before.
Branzino ($25; above left) was grilled whole and filleted in the kitchen before serving. If it can’t claim any particular distinction, it was everything you want this simple dish to be.
A wonderful Galletto, or organic chicken ($27; above right), came from the aforesaid wood-burning oven, which imparts plenty of flavor, along with a coating of herbs and roasted mushrooms.
We got to chatting with the chef, who sent out an order of semifreddo on the house (two flavors: pistachio and coffee with hints of chocolate).
With new Italian places opening weekly, it’s hard to say where Rafele fits in the dining hierarchy. I won’t make grand pronouncements, but I’d go out of my way to dine here again.
Rafele (29 Seventh Avenue South at Morton Street, West Village)
Food: The cuisine of Naples, very well executed in a casual setting
Wine: An all-Italian list, 4 pages of selections, in a wide price range
Service: Sufficiently attentive—at the bar, at least
Ambiance: Modern rusticity; an open kitchen; and a broad vista on Seventh Avenue
Rating: Critic’s Pick
Why? I know there’s a glut of Italian cuisine, but to call it a neighborhood spot is to underrate it.