how's "Frank" ?
There was lots of hype about this place a few years ago when it opened, but I never made it. (Frank - 2nd ave, East Village). Its rep was really good Italian at cheap prices -- but it sounded hard to get into, cramped.
Is it worthy as a "first date" place ? I would be going on a Wednesday nite -- still a chore to get seated, ya think ? Overall, worth it ?
Can't answer the "worth it" it question--never had a proper meal there--but a chore to get seated: you betcha.
I was there on a Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, meeting friends for drinks at the bar, and the crowds were out of control. (Did try some tasty shrimp salad, though.) Every time I pass, it's like this, and I don't think a Wednesday would be any different. Might deserve the hype, but seems like way too much hassle for a date.
I did however, recently go to Max (the almost-as-hyped cheapo Italian on Avenue B) on a weekday night. No wait, and a thoroughly pleasant experience. The food wasn't surprising, but I was surprised I liked it as much as I did. Nuevo-retro red-sauce stuff, but done cleverly and with care. Really nice lasagna, served in little round casserole, with great tomato sauce and a lovely, creamy bechemel. Mozzarella-stuffed meatloaf. Decent wine. Nice waitstaff. Pretty crowd. Way fewer cell phones than Frank.
My pick for the most interesting E. Village inexpensive Italian, though, would be a new place called Gnocco (10th St., just west of Ave. B). Tried it a couple weeks ago, and want to go back. Not everything was a hit, but the price is sure right (most entrees in the $10 range), and they're serving things you won't find elsewhere--certainly not in the neighborhood, at least.
Went with 3 other people, and the four of us split two appetizers, two pastas, two mains, and two desserts. Gnocco, the signature dish, is a plate of fried squares of dough and cold cuts. The meat was prosciutto--much better stuff than you'd imagine for the price--and something denser and saltier (Speck?). The gnocco themselves, on first nibble, were alarmingly like those big fried noodles you used to get with mustard and duck sauce in American-Chinese restaurants. After a while, though, we all realized that this was A Good Thing. The sharp fried greasiness of the the dough squares and the rich fattiness of the meat were a perfect lard-on-lard one-two punch. A dynamite snack.
The other app we got was an octopus and potato salad on arugula. Forgettable, except for the puddle of electric-green olive oil.
The pastas were both great. (We wanted to order the rabbit and asparagus tagliatelle, but they were out.) Gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce: perfect, tender, light...and cherry tomatoes that were absolutly the best tomatoes I've had in a tomato-filled summer. There's also a great dish of whole-wheat pasta tubes with bacon and chickpeas (and tons of rosemary). Wow.
Mains were a beef straccoto and pork with parmigiano and balsamic vinegar. The beef was in little nubs rather than "rags." Served on top of arugula; a lot of rosemary. Nice flavor, but seriously un-tender meat. Ultimately, not fun. The pork was completely buried under tons of shaved cheese--more cheese than meat, really. It took me a while to get it, and by the time I did, it was gone. One important point about this place: small portions. Completely reasonable, considering the prices, but you -have to- order more than one course.
I thought the desserts were lousy. There were some votes in favor of the chocolate cake, but to me it was pure Duncan-Hines. The pear tart had little going for it.
Anyway, sorry to go on, but I think this place is really worthwhile--a change from the Franks and Maxs (however good they are) filling up the neighborhood. And, to at least slightly approch your original query, a good date spot.
There was New York magazine review about a month ago, but I'm surprised there hasn't been any Chowhound commentary. So, if you do go there for your date, I'd love to hear back.
re: Steven Stern
Gnocco is quite good, but the menu is inconsistent. The tagliatelle with asparagus and rabbit is flavorless. You're lucky they were out the night you dined there. The ricotta gnocco with sage is subtle and delicious, as is the campanelle with porcini. There is an artichoke salad (with raw, thinly sliced artichokes) that I thought was delicious and the guy at the next table thought was incomprehensible. The pine nuts seemed rancid to me and caused an allergic reaction I only seem to get when pine nuts are rancid. Prices are very good and the food in general is tasty but very very subtle.
Frank is almost always fantastic, but their delivery service is terrible. Might be a different kitchen, even, considering the discrepancy with the quality of the food served on premises. You must be very tolerant of cigarette smoke to enjoy eating there.
Max, where I've only dined once, was tasty and quite similar to Frank.
Granted, this reply is a tad later than you needed for your date, but for future ref...
Frank's is a fantastic place that is well worth the wait. I have eaten there more times than I can count and each time has been a pleasurable experience. The gnocchi is fantastic, the pasta dishes are great, and I love the calamari and fish dishes. And best of all, the prices are totally reasonable. :)
I would recommend that you go some not so crowded time and check it out for yourself. Crowds are crowds are crowds and Frank's has them for a good reason. I will be very surprised if you don't become a fan as well.
My 2 cents...
Oh, and you can always wait at the wine bar (Vera's) next door that is also owned by Frank.