Exile on 9th Street

New restaurants Monsù, 943 and Paloma are trying to transform the Italian Market into a dinner destination. But will the customers support them?

Saavedra’s French-Mexican fusion at this white-tablecloth spot is not short on ambition. There’s a baroque quality to dishes like rabbit tenderloin wrapped in Serrano ham, stuffed with sweet-potato risotto, and sauced with a chipotle-ginger-red-wine reduction. At least, there is on paper. Unfortunately, the result looked and tasted like a hot dog stuffed with cheddar cubes and laid over a puddle of spiced-and-sweetened ketchup.

There are better offerings—savory flan packed with chanterelle, trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms; a bold, cold terrine of smoked-salmon mousse and tongue-tingling roasted poblanos; baked branzino encased in lump crab—and the painstaking geometries of the nouvelle-cuisine plating show that no effort is being spared. But the sauces underwhelmed, a shortcoming for cooking so based in French technique. I’d eat spicy sorbets here every day of the week, but with entrées clustering around the $30 mark, I wanted a more gripping meal.

Over the course of two affordable brunches and dinners, Monsù emerged as the most compelling of these new kids on the block, offering a history of Sicilian culture stretching back to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Vandals, Normans, Arabs, Spaniards—they’ve all had their way with the island. And McAndrews and Messina dig deep into the culinary side of that story.

Fans of Modo Mio already know that McAndrews has a way with lasagna, and it’s hard to beat the one he’s been serving here: homemade pasta sheets cradling sausage, raisins, ricotta salata, and—taking inspiration from the Sicilian port of Messina, whose golden era came under Spanish occupation in the 17th century—exotic spice-trade whiffs of cinnamon and cocoa.

Spanish Sicily turns up again in a salmon empanada, whose puff-pastry shell and sticky date sweetness recommend it highly for brunch. Though between that and the “Sicilian scrapple,” there’s no contest. This is what the Italian Market can, at its best, be all about. Domenick Crimi down at Cappuccio’s Meats saves up his pork tails and cheeks—“all the stuff that would otherwise get thrown away,” McAndrews says—for this ugly beauty of greasy meat crisped up with semolina flour.

Lightly battered cauliflower florets, redolent of fish sauce (fermented anchovies were a staple in ancient Rome) and jazzed up with lemon and mint, are delicious. The duck leg comes encrusted with hazelnuts. And in an intriguing osso buco variation, dried apricots and sesame brittle nod toward North Africa, even if the gristly pork-shank centerpiece comes from another direction entirely.

But for all Monsù’s promise, it’s suffering the same affliction as its newcomer neighbors. McAndrews had to axe some of his most interesting-sounding dishes a week or two in—red mullet, sweet-and-sour tripe, fish-egg pancakes—after having to throw so much food away for lack of customers. As spring rolled in, the restaurant was closer to half-full than all-empty. McAndrews put snails and stuffed sardines back on the menu. But he was still crossing his fingers.

The Market has proved tougher than he or Cancelliere imagined. People shop but don’t eat, both say. The street could stand to be spruced up—or even just cleaned up—for the evenings. The dinner hour is deadly in all but the best weather. They’re trying to change all that, but it may take more than just their efforts to turn the Italian Market into the dinner destination they want it to be.