I spent a week in Paris a few years ago and (at that time) I had no trouble finding delicious three course meals in high-quality neighborhood restaurants for 30-35 Euros, which of course includes tax and service. This comes out to a total bill without wine of about $50, and good wine is cheaper in Paris than here. Places that looked equivalent to storefront ethnic restaurants in NYC were substantially less pricy, though not exactly inexpensive (15-20 Euros), but I didn't try them.
Is this possible in Manhattan? Is there a nice place that doesn't feel mass-produced or rushed; really good food--not amazing but better than "pretty good"; with three courses for $35-38 or so, except maybe for the most expensive things on the menu? Or the equivalent in small plates... To make things (quite) a bit easier, I'm willing to share the appetizer and dessert, since portions here are too large anyway. But still, unless there's a prix fixe, the main courses probably need to be in the $20-$23 range, or at most $25. Can you get quality food and a decent relaxed atmosphere in that price range, a place you'd be proud to take someone out to for a pleasant 90 minutes or so? (In Paris you get the whole evening.)
Target neighborhoods: Manhattan north of Canal and south of 79th Street, not too far east on the LES. ..
The place I know that comes closest to what I want is Novita...but not everyone likes it....and it's close to the upper limit of the price range. Both the food and the pricing are fine at Le Zie--it's less elegant but charming in its own way--but unless you go early the noise is deafening....Despite these two examples, I'm not stuck on Italian....