NoLita thrives on its chic casualness. Star restaurants, like CafÃ© Habana and Cafe Gitane, are sunny, laid-back and unapologetically posh. But the overhaul of the former '90s mainstay Rialto to create Elizabeth has eschewed the dÃ©cor of its neighbors, favoring espresso wood and leather, stylized black chandeliers and regal jade paint. And the result is hardly inviting -- a real shame considering that the food from Chef John Iconomou (formerly of Country) is. Past this contrived, speakeasy-esque space, though, is what will become the place's savior: its back patio, which is welcoming with its clutter of potted plants, simple marble tables, worn-in brick walls and, most important, retractable roof to keep it thriving year-round. In these airy surroundings, the small plates feel right at home, like head-on prawns with chive aioli ($13), watermelon salad with feta, olives, and mache ($10) and ricotta ravioli with fava beans ($12). If you get swept away by the glossy interior and the overwrought drink list, the menu will probably lack the inventiveness you expect. See: a pork tenderloin and potato latke dish ($14) that is more sacrilegious than brave. To achieve the hot-spot status of its predecessor, getting a graffiti artist to spray "GARDEN OUT BACK" on its faÃ§ade would be a good place to start. 265 Elizabeth St., (212) 334-2426.
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