NEW YORK TIMES

CUCINA DELL’ARTE

A quest for a different kind of eating in Italy, one that swaps the simple plate of pasta for art on a plate: maccheroni soufflé, urchin risotto and caviar-and-chocolate for dessert.

The phrase “ora d’aria” refers to the period when prison inmates are let into the yard: a blessed reprieve, which the restaurant Ora d’Aria certainly offers. One of its two main dining rooms is deep inside, far from the street; the other, with sleek white tulip chairs and gray banquettes, is underground. We chose to go down, and ate near the portal to the restaurant’s expansive wine cellar, crowded in particular with Chianti, Montepulciano, Montalcino. Ora d’Aria knows exactly where it is – Tuscany – and its wine list and menu pay homage to that.

Less audacious and more accessible than Cracco, it doesn’t cast its lot with sci-fi cooking, but rummages its enchanted region of Italy for underexposed traditions and ingredients, which it mingles with better-known ones. Eating here is like encountering an old friend who has had a thorough makeover. He’s the same but different, familiar but fresh.

The ragù for a dish of pappardelle, a noodle with a special currency in Tuscany, was made with a fennel-flavored salami that I don’t often encounter, and one of the dish’s accents was nepitella, a minty wild herb that grows in the countryside around Florence.

The pappardelle was part of a five-course, 60-euro tasting menu that was both fairly priced and wisely proportioned: Kerry and I left feeling pampered, not decadent; sated, not comatose. Ora isn’t an event you set aside an entire evening and a week’s salary for, but rather a smart, welcome change of pace from so many Italian restaurants with a classical approach.