Sunday, May 10, 2009
Trattoria Italian Kitchen
I was a late Sopranos fan. I was watching the first episode of season one, only a few weeks before the final episode of season six was to air. However, I quickly made up for lost time and in a feverish binge, I watched six seasons or 86 hours in three weeks and was caught up with the rest of the world by the time the series finale was aired. During those weeks I found myself wanting to resolve conflicts with a baseball bat, dropping the f-bomb at breakfast, and craving “ziti”. I’ve never even had ziti, but after the thirtieth time Carmela pulled out a casserole of it for Father Intintola, I could taste the romano and ricotta. Anyway, I’m telling you all of this because somewhere in between hour 47 and 54, I started to want Italian food real, real, real bad. And this is where the rub is, Vancouver despite having a formidable depth and variety of food for a city of its size is really lacking in the Italian department.
Before anyone loses their mind and starts yelling Cioppino or Umberto at the computer screen, I should clarify. Vancouver has a number of good/great expensive fine dining Italian places. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I want big plates of handmade pasta, in simple yet delicious sauces, and a few bottles of decent Chianti or Barolo. I also don’t want to feel like I’ve just put a down payment on a condo when the bill comes. We need a Vesuvio, a place where you can have simple home-style Italian – maybe just without the gangsters and arson. I can only think of two places that come under this category: Anton’s and La Buca. Anton’s is pretty much in bloody Burnaby, you have to lineup, and the food isn’t nearly what it was when Tony himself was still around. But to be fair, the Tondi Don Vincenzo is still awesome, and the portioning can still feed a small family for a week. La Buca is great. Andre Durbach does Artie Bucco proud, but that’s another review entirely. Two – three if you include the second La Buca – good and affordable Italian restaurants in the city? (Please feel free to comment and let me know places that perhaps I haven’t tried and that you think prove me wrong. You probably won’t, though, as I’m basically always right)
I apologize for the long buildup, but I needed to make a few things clear before I started talking about Trattoria. Trattoria has a lot of promise. It is a nice sized restaurant with an open kitchen, and a very lively atmosphere. The menu is very reasonably priced with all pasta under $15 and all mains under $18. I want to love Trattoria.
We went as a group of four to try it out. We had to wait for a table, which was a good excuse to have a pitcher of white sangria and discuss what we wanted to eat. The sangria was very good and the wait was not long. One of the nice things about Trattoria is the encouragement to share, family style. They have a pasta platter for $15/per person (minimum 2 people) that has four pastas, and a meat and fish platter for $18, also with an assortment of four. We ordered a pasta platter, a lamb sausage and wild mushroom pizza, and a warm panzanella salad. Everything seemed to be going a little too well.
Before I talk about the actual food, a brief comment about the wine list. What the hell? Possibly the most uninventive, badly priced selection I’ve come across. If you’re going to offer relatively cheap food, the wine list should be a complement. First of all, if the best you can come up with for your entry level Italian wine is a bottle of Cecci for $40, you should be dragged into the street and shot. Cecci is a $13 bottle of wine, and it’s not even a good $13 bottle of wine. Mission Hill. Penfolds. The list is what you might expect at White Spot, if not slightly less inventive. In all seriousness, I’m baffled at the possibility that Glowbal group has a sommelier or someone who is compiling these travesties.
So back to the food… If one word would sum it up it would be “uninspired”. I was initially excited by the idea of the pasta platter. Portion wise it was great. Selection wise, not so much. If you’re going to create a sampling to showcase your pastas, plating spaghetti and Kobe meatballs in a tomato fonduta, penne pomodoro, and Kobe lasagna seems a little bit dull and repetitive. All three rely on a tomato sauce that is almost identical. Tomato fonduta and pomodoro whatever way you want to say it, it’s the same thing. I do have to say the spaghetti was very good with a nice spicy, garlicy bite. Kobe meatballs though? Essentially quite tasty meatballs prefixed by the word Kobe. Pointless, gratuitous, you get the idea. The lasagne and penne were both very plain tasting. The fourth pasta was a pesto linguini. I don’t know how you screw up pesto. Safeway frozen microwavable dinners don’t screw up pesto. Lots of garlic, lots of basil, olive oil, and some pine nuts and you have great pesto. The pesto linguine had all of these just without the lots part, and so, tasted tasteless. On a positive note, it all came on a very nice plate and there was lots of it. If you want to get full for fifteen bucks, not a bad option – I recommend it accompanied by a cool glass of tap water.
Similarly to pesto, it is difficult to screw up pizza when you have decent dough and good toppings. Somehow they did. The dough was very good. The lamb sausage –delicious. The peppered goats cheese – yummy. The wild mushrooms – boo yeah. Put them all together on a pizza and… bland? I don’t know how. But it was. Seriously. Bland. Spicy lamb sausage, peppered goats cheese and mushrooms, but you need to salt it heavily? We sometimes make pizza when having people over to watch hockey. I’m usually drunk and belligerent. But it doesn’t matter because all you need to do is put a bunch of good stuff on some dough and it tastes awesome. I’ve had so many beers that I can’t find the kitchen, but still the pizza comes out good. I don’t know how Trattoria did it, but they did.
I want to love Trattoria. I love the price. The service is good. The atmosphere is fun. The décor is fine. I could get over the wine list. I could get over the art deco nightmare uniforms. But they need to get their basics together. The ingredients are all good, someone just needs to shake someone very vigorously and tell them how to put them into the dishes.
If you’ve read this and choose to go to Trattoria anyway, order dessert. The homemade fritters (little timbits with molten chocolate filling) and vanilla anglaise are some of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Artie Bucco has nothing on these.