New York’s Great Italian Restaurant

Jennifer Livingston

Manhattan’s Il Posto Accanto is Roman cooking at its best. Nothing fancy. Just utter perfection.

It’s midday Sunday, a very mellow time at Il Posto Accanto, the little Roman-style trattoria on Second Street in Manhattan’s East Village. Sun streams through the glass panes of the doors. Customers sit at a bar eating frittatas and spaghetti carbonara, reading the papers. Over the sound system come the sweet Brazilian strains of João Gilberto’s “Corcovado.” And from behind the bar, Il Posto’s owner, Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta, holds court.

Senti, sweetheart,” Beatrice says to Alessandro Bordoni, a regular here. “Listen, do you feel like something lovely and a little spicy? Some nice penne with vodka? Or do we feel in a more eggy mood today, honey?”

“Regulars are the majority here,” says Bordoni, an Umbrian from Spoleto, Italy, who works in New York as a trading manager for a major Italian oil company. “There is for me a blurred line between Il Posto and Beatrice’s house.”

Bea’s domain—almost everybody calls her Bea—consists of Il Posto, which turned ten this year, and its next-door sister, Il Bagatto, a much larger restaurant and lounge that opened in 1995. Il Posto Accanto, which means “the place next door,” was Bea’s idea for a little oasis, a bar plus a couple of tables and some stools, where she could serve small plates. Here her brother Gabrio—“the wine genius,” she calls him—could supply great and hard-to-find Italian bottles from his shop around the corner on Clinton Street.

Today Bea, a voluble 46-year-old, is dressed in one of her signature ankle-length skirts, this one in fuchsia panne velvet, with a pink top and her good pearls. She pushes her long blonde hair back from a high aristocratic forehead, and as she sways elegantly to the other end of the bar, the tattoos along her waist, in the gap between skirt and top, are revealed.

“I’m chubby because I love to eat,” she says. “I always loved to eat. My grandmother made my first play dough out of flour and water. Even when I was first in New York and living in a teeny studio with a hot plate, I was making spaghetti with lobster for ten people.”

Here, on a semi-gentrified stretch of the continuously gentrifying East Village—it looks, from Il Posto’s French doors, like an early Spike Lee, Manhattan style, in progress—Bea staked her fortune, her fame, to love among the then-ruins. The entire neighborhood was dim and shabby; rats and stray cats roamed these streets. But Il Posto has grown from nothing to what some unrelentingly hard-to-please gourmands—writer, editor, and literary éminence grise Jason Epstein is a regular—sometimes call the best little Italian trattoria in, well, maybe…anywhere.

While Il Posto has been on East Second Street for a decade, it always feels like a sudden rare discovery. Authentic and personal, it has perfect pitch for these hard times. Dishes are gently priced, and dinner never has to be more than $50 a person. Quality, not pricing, has always come first. And because it’s built on a human scale, Il Posto is unlike more elaborate big-deal Italian places—say Scarpetta or Del Posto, where the bill can be double or triple the one here—that have recently dominated the New York scene.

Everything at Il Posto is made to order, and slowly—sometimes very slowly—the dishes coming up from the basement kitchen. There are the gamberi, lightly fried white shrimp served on a sheet of brown paper, which “soaks up a little of the lovely oil,” says Bea. Stuffed squash blossoms, sweet caramelized cipolline, calamari glistening with extra-virgin Sicilian oil, her favorite made from Nocellara del Belice olives. (For special dishes Bea is also partial, she says, to a peppery oil from Puglia and some fruitier varieties from Tuscany.)

After the antipasti there follows a dish of tawny imported Tuscan cannellini beans with tiny mussels (cultivated off Prince Edward Island) in sleek black shells. Homemade fettuccine with shiitake mushrooms and grape tomatoes arrives perfectly cooked. The ragu for the tortellini is a Bolognese made with a secret recipe that is so sublime, so beautifully balanced between sweet and spicy, between vegetable and meat, between spice and herb, it alone would provide sustenance.

Everybody, it seems, is welcome at Bea’s. “We get federal judges, doctors, pilots, artists, athletes, Wall Street executives. There’s a contingent of lovely Argentines who work at Credit Suisse and my cohort of Italian fashion people,” Bea says. Padma Lakshmi, the hostess of the television show Top Chef, is a regular. So, too, is John Legend, the singer. But celebrityhood, thank God, is not the point here.

One warm spring Sunday, sitting at the bar of Il Posto, Silvano Marchetto, the owner of the chic West Village restaurant Da Silvano, announces his determination to eat only salad, then noticing some pasta, changes his mind, removes his sweater, and, in his Marlon Brando undershirt, goes to work on a plate of rigatoni.

“I love going to see Bea on my Sundays off,” says Marchetto. “She makes my family feel welcome, like we’re at home—and the pasta is fantastic.”

Bea has no cookbook (though she plans to publish one someday) and no imperial desire to be branded or boldfaced for celebrity rags. Unlike Marchetto, she has never shown up in People, Us Weekly, or Hello. (Only recently did she find herself in The New York Times, preparing sea urchin pasta in a Dining section story called “Escape from the Sushi Bar.”) What she does, she does out of principle, both with food and in life.

She is profoundly life-affirming and optimistic, more so perhaps after surviving ovarian cancer in 2000. Her fierce dedication is not only to cooking good food and making the human condition a little better but also to living her own way. She refuses to see herself as a chef. “I am a cook,” she says emphatically.

Raised in a family part stiff-necked Roman bourgeoisie, part tumbledown aristocracy, she always had her own ideas outside of convention and expectation. “All I ever wanted was to open a restaurant,” she says. “While others were getting married, I was different. I was pierced and tattooed before anyone else, always traveling with a mixed group of friends—from royalty to the children of the caretaker.” Her ability to connect with all kinds of people has made Il Posto its own particular community.

When I was growing up in Greenwich Village in the fifties and sixties, cucina Italiana meant New York–style Italian American. The food was good, even if the staples were veal parmigiana and chicken cacciatore, and, more important, it was neighborhood-friendly. You knew the owner and everyone who ate there. It’s this last bit that Bea provides in abundance, even if her cuisine—the half-moon ravioli filled with fresh Roman ricotta with lemon zest, the branzini fillet with a salad of fennel and blood orange—is nothing like the red sauce of my childhood. As cook and hostess, she embodies authenticity.

“She runs a very good trattoria,” says Tony May, one of the grandees of New York’s Italian food scene, whose recently shuttered San Domenico on Central Park South was a dominant force for two decades. (His new place, SD26, will open this fall.) “A classic trattoria is a restaurant where the food is traditional, usually a mom-and-pop place where a family member cooks,” May says. “It’s different from a ristorante, which is usually run by a contingent of professionals—chefs, waiters—and where the food is, or should be, about evolving cuisine.”

When May arrived in the United States in 1963, he encountered what he calls a “bastardized American Italian cooking”—the kind I ate as a child—“that came out of the immigrant experience where everything was cooked too long and the products were inadequate.” I ask him about the differences between northern and southern Italian cuisine. He dismisses any such distinction: the idea of “northern Italian” was made up as a way to suggest something beyond pasta, tomato, and garlic. It’s a fake. “What there is in Italy are regional produce and products that define the dishes.” May pauses. “Of course, you can get everything everywhere in Italy now; the cooking is more unified, and we are no longer tied to a folkloric version of Italian food.”

According to May, the point of reference with Italian cuisine has to be ingredients and recipes where you recognize everything. “Don’t mess with the food,” he says. “Personally I also think you have to be born in Italy to cook great Italian food.”

Everything about Bea, the way she is invested in food, in storytelling, in family, is profoundly Italian. The cooking of the south is where her heart is. It’s a matter of obedience “to her traditions and her native home—Rome with an inspired bit of freedom thrown in,” notes Wayne Winterrowd, a writer and another Il Posto regular.

“Basically I am an olive oil and garlic girl, not butter and onion,” says Bea. Her grandmother had “acreage,” as she puts it, in Puglia, where the family got its olives for oil and wheat for pasta. Bea is so devoted to southern Italy that her running joke is, “Everything north of Florence is Austria!” Especially Milan and Venice.

To Bea, the smell, taste, look, provenance, and history of food are both earthy and metaphysical, both staff and music of life. She named Il Bagatto for a figure in the tarot deck, the alchemist. “The magician. This is the fellow who turns base metal into gold, who finds the elixir of life,” she says.

For each ingredient Bea has both visceral and intellectual appreciation. She cuts the beef chuck, pork, and veal shoulder for her Bolognese sauce by hand. It was always done that way at home because “people in Rome remembered that during the war you never knew what you got if you bought ground meat, and anyway it tastes better if you cut it yourself,” she says.

Senti, sweetheart, let me look,” she says to Hector, one of her waiters, as he appears with a caprese salad, ovals of dense, moist mozzarella and perfectly ripe tomatoes, the kind that have the aroma, flavor, and juiciness that meet the standards of a cook who can hold forth on the horrors of tomatoes gassed with ethylene to artificially ripen them. “My tomatoes are nongassed, all-natural plum tomatoes, as well as organic grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine. I use both Italian San Marzano peeled and canned tomatoes and canned Sicilian cherry tomatoes. In season I get my tomatoes fresh, of course.”

Bea’s motto is, Everything must be just right.

In July, after six months of hanging out and eating at Il Posto—I was almost practically living there—Bea and I are at the Union Square Greenmarket. Twice, three times a week, depending on the season, she sorts through some dozen boxes in search of the right tomatoes. Today, just after dawn, she’s discussing produce with Tim Stark, the premier heirloom-tomato guy at the market. For Bea, life is a run-on conversation about food.

“All love and creativity is transmitted through food for Bea,” says Olivia Mariotti, who grew up with her in Rome. “She cooks the same way at home as at her restaurants, and hers is not the scientific way men cook, which is more cerebral. She’s very emotional about it. When Bea travels she brings home spices, not souvenirs.”

At the Greenmarket, Bea throws everything into her giant string bags: tomatoes, fresh corn, organic herbs, a lemon-anise cake for her staff to snack on, smoked trout from David Harris as well as the wild watercress he gathers from the stream upstate where he fishes. With the smoked trout Bea will make an appetizer for tonight’s hungry cast.

“See how pretty,” she says, picking through some Swiss chard with huge fan-like leaves. “I will make some ravioli with this.” Rarely does she plan what she will cook in advance. She buys what looks good at the market and then improvises. Fat, ripe white peaches, albeit barely in season, catch her eye. “Perfetto,” she says.

Whenever she can, Bea shops at family stores around the city—Di Palo, on the corner of Grand and Mott streets, for imported mozzarella, Pain D’Avignon in Long Island City for its heavy-crusted country round bread and ciabatta. At Jeffrey Ruhalter’s shop in the Essex Street Market—his family has been in the meat business for generations—Bea examines the oxtail and tripe. Says Ruhalter, “Nobody really understands meat and cares about it in the way Bea does.”

“My grandfather had a castle in Chianti, with animals on the estate,” says Bea, putting the tripe in her bag. “Imagine the happiness of being there. They would slaughter the pig for Christmas, and with ultimate respect for the animal, we’d use every bit, including the lard in which we would fry potatoes,” she adds, pulling away from the market. “Darling, now Mommy has to take you to school,” she says to Kiki, her teacup Chihuahua. “Kiki must go every day to Doggy Day Care for Small Dogs in the East Village,” she says with an expansive chuckle.

Ample of scale, Bea is often cast by her casual clients as a sort of echt Italian mama, the kind devoted to hearth and home, with four or five children. (“I never wanted kids,” she says. “Other peoples’ are very nice.”) But with the gusto and charm come profound curiosity, irony, and sharp opinions.

“Oh, my God, you mean the Parmesan Nazi,” says a friend when I tell him about Bea and Il Posto. Bea does not suffer fools lightly, especially when they request cheese on their linguine with clams. Or when Al Pacino asked for lemon peel with his espresso. “I couldn’t believe it,” Bea says. “Lemon peel is only used when the coffee is bad, to disguise the taste.”

“Each dish is like her child,” says Mariotti. “If you ask for something else, like the Parmesan, it’s as if you criticized her child.” Or, say, told her to cut the kid’s hair.

Bea pulls her SUV up outside Il Posto. Along the curb is her l965 canary-yellow Cadillac convertible. Across the street is a cantaloupe-colored 1971 Datsun, which belongs to Bea’s husband, Julio Pena, who is of Dominican heritage and a dead-ringer for Dizzy Gillespie.

Married in l994, the two live on Harrison Street in TriBeCa, with a big kitchen, art on every wall, and, among the furniture, a couple of Poltrona Frau leather sofas. Bea grew up in a 4,000-square-foot apartment near Rome’s fashionable Via Veneto and “had servants who sewed, ironed, and cooked,” she says. “Nobody ever went into the kitchen. Except me.”

“My mother always had me on a diet,” she says, unloading the groceries. When I was six I already had little boobies, my mother weighed about a hundred pounds, and when we went to the beach in Tuscany, she believed a picnic was two tomatoes and two boiled eggs, no salt. ‘If you want salt, you can dip them in the ocean,’ she always said.” Bea pauses. “Other families would arrive for a day, always full of life, the kids already in their goggles and flippers, with a month’s worth of food, lovely lasagna and caponata, and I’m so hungry, I have to go begging to them.” She laughs at the memory.

After finishing college in Italy, Bea came to New York in 1983 to study journalism and public relations. She went back to Rome and worked in PR, got bored, thought about opening a shack on a beach in Bali, and then, in 1989, moved to New York for good. She still wanted to open a restaurant. Her father—Bea’s parents were long divorced—suggested some work experience. (Eventually he became a silent partner in her business. Over the bar at Il Posto is a plaque noting that the four seats below are reserved for him and his guests. Bea goes to see him in Rome every month or two.)

In New York she worked at various jobs—including as a coat check girl at Tanti Baci Caffé downtown, where she also helped out in the kitchen for a while—until she met somebody who offered her a space for her own restaurant, on a derelict street in the East Village, where Il Bagatto eventually opened. “It was mostly junkies and homeless people,” says Bea. “I had no idea what I was doing. My friends said, ‘With your cooking, they will come.’ For the first year I got tennis elbow making focaccia, tiramisu, homemade pasta. I prepped everything, and Julio and I cleaned the restaurant. We maxed out our credit cards. But we knew what we wanted. We were rogues. We cooked like in Rome, where the food was always kick-ass and everybody eats at home. We still don’t have cost-effective methods or spreadsheets,” adds Bea. For her the restaurants are a way to entertain, not a business. Her intention was never to get rich, but there is a certain pride in the fact that everybody who works for her can take care of their families, and she is able to close for three weeks every August.

Cooking for Il Posto is done in its basement and in a ground-level kitchen at Il Bagatto. On this particular morning Bea greets her staff, puts her head into the tiny office where a young summer intern is working on the computer, checks the huge pot of tomato sauce already simmering on a stove and another of lentils, puts on her apron, and picks up a lettuce leaf, nibbling it thoughtfully. “I never make vinaigrette in advance,” she says. “I like to chew on a piece of something green and discover what gift a particular sea salt will give to it.”

Onto the grill go the ears of fresh corn. On a pale green board she chops deep-emerald Swiss chard. Her tomato-colored skirt blows in the hot breeze from a fan. The dough she rolls out is made from Italian eggs, the kind with the orange-yellow yolks, and she turns it into ravioli to fold over the Swiss chard, then moves her attention to the squid, slicing it into rings so tiny, so translucent, you could put them on a baby’s fingers. Into the salad will go the corn and some delicate green mâche.

Around lunchtime, on a spiffy scooter, a crisp Hermès Zodiac scarf in pale gray and brown tied to the handlebars, Clelia Bendandi, Bea’s partner, arrives. Bendandi’s family owned the restaurant L’Isola del Sole, a houseboat on the Tevere where, according to Bea, “everybody went.” At the end of the nineties, Bendandi called Bea because she no longer had the restaurant and was bored. Then she came to visit New York and never left. “We cook together, and we would not be as good otherwise; it’s where the magic comes from,” says Bea. “Neither Clelia nor I has formal cooking training. I am a big fan of food, of substance and not appearance, the food of women who cook to feed the tummy and soul.”

Checking her sauce again, Bea adds, “I understood from the beginning what people love to eat. I can look at someone and think, ‘Do you really want the fusilli, amore? Or today do you want the pork chops or the meat loaf?’ ”

That evening, outside Il Posto, where there are a couple of tables, the air is heavy, humid, the moon hanging low over the city buildings. Julio sits on his motorcycle with the dog, sipping a beer and talking to a circle of friends leaning against their own bikes. Couples stroll by, the yuppies and winos pass, kids up past their bedtimes cool off in the open fire hydrant, and Bea is on the steps, a bottle of rosé in her hand. “Wow,” notes a passing tourist from Omaha. “This is really New York!”

Inside at the bar, some Irish customers drink Bellinis, which Bea has made from the white peaches she bought at the Greenmarket that morning. At one of the high, long tables, a family—two parents, one kid, one dog—eat bruschetta, the coarsely chopped plum tomatoes from the market spiked with the bright green of fresh basil.

Around ten, Bea, who has been up since dawn, blows kisses at everything, gets into her SUV, and disappears into the night.

Three months later, it’s November, election night. a crowd has gathered at Il Posto Accanto, the de facto neighborhood clubhouse. Old, young, gay, straight, tourists, locals, all in Obama T-shirts and tiaras supplied by Bea, all eating, drinking grappa and Prosecco. Julio pops some pink Champagne. People cheer, laugh, cry, stream onto the streets. A gaggle of Italians hugs everyone, shouting, “We love Obama, we love America, we love Bea.”

Sentite, amori,” she says to the crowd. “Now, what about a lovely panna cotta?”

Il Posto Accanto is at 190 East Second Street, in New York’s East Village, where Bea serves dinner every night and does lunch every day except Monday. The restaurant does not take reservations (212-228-3562: