As a South Ender, I find it easy to admire the smooth professionalism and crowd-pleasing instincts of the Aquitaine Group, which operates six of its eight restaurants in the neighborhood, including Metropolis, Union, Aquitaine, and Gaslight. The last is a clever bit of thievery: it copied the gorgeous look of Manhattan's famed Balthazar and cultivated a following of young Bostonians with affordable prices and Americanized versions of French brasserie classics, leavened with lively (some might say deafening) atmosphere. With the brand-new Cinquecento, the AG boys are copying another Gotham high flyer, Maialino, the "Roman trattoria" from uber-restaurateur Danny Meyer — if you're going to steal, steal from the best — while making similar adjustments for the provinces.
They've redone the former Rocca space in Maialino's image with impressive results, framing the second-floor dining room and bar with rustic wooden ceiling beams, floors, and tables, with huge windows admitting glowing ambient light from Harrison Avenue and a beautiful rear patio. It's a stunning design, dramatic yet warm and inviting, albeit with the same shout-to-be-heard noise levels of Gaslight. Specialty cocktails served at the long, sinuous, hopping bar include a Negroni flight ($16), featuring three short variations of the classic mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari on the rocks, a beguiling, high-test aperitif. The wide-ranging wine list offers some choice bargains, like wine on tap from the Gotham Project, including the crisp Sicilian grillo and hearty Sicilian nero d'Avola ($12.50–$13.50 for a half carafe).
Appetizers include a selection of salumi, like a beautiful culatello ($7), the delicately tender, creamily fat-edged eye of prosciutto. Polpetti e sedano ($11.75) is a gorgeous presentation of grilled tentacles of young octopus, cooked just to tenderness with a nice charcoal bite, but nearly overwhelmed by intensely briny Taggiasca olives. Ricotta fresca ($7), a dish of house-made fresh cow's-milk cheese, is a better example of Roman balance, bolstered by first-rate accompaniments like superb grilled bread and a drizzle of excellent olive oil: eminently simple and delicious. Trippa alla parmigiana ($9.25) works this same vein of virtuous unfussiness with chunks of tripe braised in a simple, bright tomato sauce, served in a cast-iron skillet; it's barely chewy, only faintly offal-y, utterly satisfying. Zuppa di fagioli ($7.50) offers a hearty, smoky stew of borlotti beans, kale, and big chunks of smoked ham, undercut a bit with heavy-handed saltiness.
Pastas are uniformly strong, albeit served in oversized American portions. Bucatini alla carbonara ($14.50) gets every Roman detail right, lightly saucing its short strands of fat, hollow spaghetti in barely cooked egg, pecorino romano, and guanciale that offers the unique, gamy flavor of lightly cured hog jowl (rather than the tamer choice of pancetta). Tagliatelle alla bolognese ($17.25) tosses a lovely ragù of veal, pork, and pancetta with flat pasta ribbon, using rather more sauce than I suspect Romans prefer. Spaghetti alla chitarra al pomodoro ($14.25) is more aptly subtle, just coating its thin strands of pasta with a smooth, elegant, ravishing sauce of tomatoes, butter, and basil.