I knew I was going to like Contrada before it even opened. “Contrada” means “neighborhood” or “district” in Italian, and it just so happens that I used to live up the street from the restaurant, in my favorite neighborhood in New York. I’ve been going to restaurants in the space on the heavily-trafficked corner of 4th street and Second Avenue that is now home to Contrada for years, and I just had a good feeling about this one.
For a year in law school I lived in the shittiest apartment on the next block up on Second Avenue. I recently found an old email invitation that my roommates and I sent for a party, and the directions read: “We’re on Second Avenue between 4th and 5th, if you get to the Sin Sin Lounge you are both too far north and in mortal peril.” The staircase smelled, we had bugs, the neighbors were loud, the floor was incapable of ever actually being made clean, and the ceiling over my bed collapsed when the leaky radiator upstairs went ignored for months. But I have great feelings associated with the apartment and the neighborhood anyway because I lived there with some of my best friends from law school, and it’s where The Boyfriend and I fell in love. Oh, and also, the restaurants in the neighborhood were boss.
One of my roommates that year declared that she was over brunch — too much hype for overpriced, mediocre egg dishes. But then she had the shirred eggs at Belcourt, on the corner of 4th and Second, and she was like “Gahhh, I love brunch!“ Unfortunately, Belcourt closed shortly after her epiphany. (But if you want to make something similar to their shirred eggs, this is pretty dang close.)
So the corner went dark for a bit, and then Calliope opened up. The Boyfriend and I had one spectacular meal there and fell totally in love — everything from the eggs mayonnaise to the rabbit pappardelle was outstanding. (We also had several very good meals there — but it was that excellent one that kept us coming back.) And then, alas, we heard the chefs were leaving Calliope* and the ownership was temporarily closing up shop and re-branding as a new restaurant. I was nervous, but I had a good feeling about the new incarnation of what will always be “the old Belcourt space.”
A few short weeks later, Contrada was open for business with a fish-based small plates menu and a killer happy hour, and all the things I still love about that corner. And I was back — even though I had moved out of the shitty apartment and out of the little contrada, I was drawn to this corner of the city where I lived when New York first started feeling like home to me.
Contrada has big windows that they open up in the summer, so it feels like you’re sitting out on the sidewalk. And nasty old Sin Sin Lounge no longer plagues the neighborhood — it was replaced by a Bare Burger a few years ago, so you’re perfectly safe out on that sidewalk. The interior may as well have been designed by Keith McNally — tin ceiling, tiled floor, huge mirror, over-sized common table, and liquor bottles lining one wall. The zinc tables are small and look like they might be wobbly, but let’s call them Bistro Chic, hm?
And let’s talk about that happy hour. Delicious briny oysters, that still taste like the ocean, for $1, which pair perfectly with a crisp glass of prosecco, on happy hour for just $6. And we all know how I feel about crispy smashed potatoes (hint: very good). On a summer afternoon with the windows open and a best friend, it’s a perfect combination, and if you don’t believe me, see the photo at the top of this post.
And the service is so damn spunky that you’ll want to stick around for dinner (this is a If-You-Give-A-Moose-A-Muffin** sort of situation). The menu is seasonal, but if they have the flake crudo, you’d be crazy not to try it. It’s spicy and tangy, and the fish still tastes like fish (but not “fishy” in the bad way). And the agnolotti is fantastic — I’m still dreaming of the version they served last summer, which was stuffed with a buttery sweet corn purée. I’m already planning my next trip, to try the fall interpretation of mushrooms (roasted) and cauliflower (warm with pistachios) and ricotta gnocci (with braised lamb).
Even if it’s not my contrada any more, it’ll always feel like home.
84 East 4th Street (and Second Avenue)
What we’ll get again: oysters, prosecco, smashed potatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, crudo, agnolotti, gnocci.
* Eric Korsch — the husband in the husband-and-wife team that left Calliope earlier this year — has taken his considerable talents to Danny Meyer’s North End Grill in Battery Park City. I don’t know what Ginerva Iverson — whom Pete Wells credited for Calliope’s lovely, uncomplicated French fare — is up to, except that I googled her a bunch of times in a row and then requested to follow her on Instagram before I realized that she only has, like, 50 followers and a private account. Sooooo she might be up to filing a restraining order against me. I’ll keep y’all posted.
** I was recently informed that If You Give A Moose A Muffin is not the original tale of animals being given an inch and taking a mile, but If You Give A Mouse A Cookie sounds like communist bullshit to me. Mom, my world is shaken. What’s up with this? Why did you deprive us of mice and cookies in favor of moose*** and muffins?