There's a sign that hangs prominently above the kitchen window in the back of the Charlatan, the new West Town Italian joint from chef Matt Troost and his partners, who also operate the University Village Italian bar-food spot Three Aces. It says Che cazzo fai?—a common Italian curse idiomatically meaning "What the cock?," or, as an irritated American chef might say, "What the fuck are you doing?" Maybe that's the reaction Troost has when he hears some of his waitstaff garble the language (while taking an order for wine, a confident server discreetly uncorrected my pronunciation of Puglia as "POOG-lia." Later, agnolotti was rendered"AG-nu-lowty").
Or maybe it's just a general exhortation to stay on your toes. Either way, that sort of Three Aces-style irreverence is very much evident in this conversion of the cozy erstwhile West Town Tavern space, with mounted game heads overlooking the dining rooms, Posada-style human skeletons frolicking on the wallpaper, and light fixtures made from plumbing, presumably to keep your mind on what's most important here—digestion.
But this is a very different venue for Troost: less rollicking drinking hole, more proper restaurant. And it's something of a return to Troost's work when he was a little-known name at a well-regarded but short-lived restaurant called Fianco.
The tight menu is overwhelmingly focused on pastas, a half dozen of them (not including frequent specials), offered in full- and half-size portions. The rest of the menu is composed of a handful of dishes in preciously titled categories such as "salt + time," "toast + green," "farm + sea." How about we get over ourselves and call them appetizers and entrees?
Among the first, snappy curls of grilled octopus coil around lengths of soft braised carrots saturated in beef stock and accompanied by coarse, nutty, almost solidified romesco sauce sprinkled with bread crumbs fried in marrow. It's likely the beefiest-tasting octopus you'll ever encounter. Carpaccio dressed with pickled beech mushrooms, grated cured duck egg, fingerling potato chips, and Parmesan is a complicated rendition of the classic with some of its simple carnal pleasures obscured—but it's tasty nonetheless. Both of these dishes display a terrific mix of textures and contrasting umami-rich and bright, acidic flavors that are missing in some of larger plates.
Troost has always been a flesh-forward chef, and there isn't much on the menu to win over vegetarians besides a farro salad and some roasted beets. There are ample opportunities for carb loading though—if you're wiling to accompany light, crispy focaccia with marrow folded into the butter, or sweet-potato bread with light, almost aerated whipped mortadella accompanied by sweet red pepper jelly and pickled mustard seeds.
Entrees are similarly protein-heavy; even a bowl of thick, almost leaden Taleggio-loaded polenta dotted with diced butternut squash and pumpkin seeds is crowned with a fried duck egg. An all-American New York strip with a remarkably precise delineation between red meat and irresistible blackened crust is served with smashed potatoes and brussels sprouts. A relatively busy—and in my case leathery and overcooked—skate wing is garnished with crispy guanciale, pickled grapes, braised fennel, capers, and watercress.
Troost also offers a couple of showstopping family-style presentations for hard-core carnivores. I watched a table of three pick away listlessly at a shockingly large pig head ($60), while my own table worked at a whole oxtail—a six-inch appendage that looks like a prop from a David Cronenberg film. Served in a cast-iron skillet with enough grilled bread and smashed potatoes to feed a small village, it's packed with luscious, fall-off-the-bone meat that nevertheless could use some salt and something acidic—pickles, preserved lemon, gremolata, anything—to offset its richness.
But whatever failings are found in appetizers and entrees, they seem inconsequential in light of what Troost can do with pasta. He's a chef of considerable imagination, unbound by tradition (every year at Thanksgiving he stuffs turkeys with Pequod's pizza). While it's possible he may upset the pasta police (the Pastapo?), his way with shapes and sauces is mostly spot-on, beginning with inky black lumache: snail-shaped squid ink squiggles, herbaceous with parsley pesto and fueled by a touch of Calabrian chile. The pasta has just the right curvature to mingle with actual gastropods, camouflaged among hen of the woods mushrooms. The long casconcelli couldn't be more different, delicate pouches filled with an emulsified mix of mascarpone and rabbit meat (a bit hard to detect, actually), the richness of its brown butter sauce and savoriness of chanterelles contrasted by sweet golden raisins.
Meanwhile, rigatoni is infused with black pepper and tossed with a simultaneously meaty and vegetal wild boar ragu, and spaghettini take on a vibrant green color from kale and walnut pesto, sprinkled with crumbled blue cheese. The same long, thin, tentacular noodles are employed in a classic meatballs and spaghettini, oversauced in a bright, vibrant marinara that completely overshadows the somewhat mealy meatballs—which seems reassuringly authentic.
The Charlatan has the expected cocktail and craft beer list, but Troost's food demands wine, and the majority-Italian list goes all over the boot, with a number of southern-Italian reds ideal for the bolder pastas.
And pasta is really what it's all about at the Charlatan. Stay on that track and it's unlikely you'll be asking yourself Che cazzo fai?