Arturo’s chef-owner, Patrick Aasen, is nothing if not reliable. During the course of several highly enjoyable meals that I’ve had at his establishment over the past few years, he has consistently turned out food that has been fresh, sound and predictably good. Yes, there are times when the word predictable can be taken as a compliment, and this is one of them. During the same period, Chef Patrick has slipped comfortably into the role of the genial mein host, making his regulars and irregulars alike welcome in his comfortable and inviting eatery. Over the past 10 or so years that I have been eating his food, I’ve scarcely encountered a single dish I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, beginning with a sample plate of smoked salmon ravioli about a decade ago at the Taste of Carmel.
Patrick Aasen, Arturo’s chef-owner
Every now and then, I like to revisit Arturo’s to see how Pat’s cooking is stacking up against the competition, which seems to be growing in numbers at a fearsome rate if not exactly gaining ground. In one corner we’ve got the traditional old-red-sauce-on-everything joints, which have now been joined by the megachain likes of Buca di Beppo and Maggiano’s Little Italy. These are in a significantly different vein from Arturo’s, but they attract a heck of a crowd. In the other corner we have the bold, radical and trailblazing, by which I mean Tavola di Tosa. Then there are the comfortingly sound establishments that fly under the flag of the estimable Arturo Di Rosa: Amalfi, Capri and the recently-opened Matteo’s. These latter are all thoroughly reliable (that word again), traditional and largely devoid of tomato sauce. For those of us who love Italian food, things could scarcely be better right now, and I’m happy to be able to report that, in spite of the considerable competition along the 86th Street corridor, Arturo’s is holding its own, and then some. As an aside, it’s good to note that all of the above named restaurants are independent: This alone is a reason to visit them all on a regular basis. The fact that each establishment offers food of considerable quality only serves to reinforce this opinion. The only slight drawback to enjoying the creature comforts of Arturo’s is its location: It’s not exactly the easiest place to get to in town, especially if you’re coming from the east. Perhaps the location has something to do with the reason that this is still something of a well-kept secret (a secret fortunately kept by quite a few loyal followers), and why things may sometimes seem a little quiet in the early evening. It’s pretty easy just to drive right past Arturo’s and not even notice it’s there, tucked away as it is in an odd little strip mall at 86th and Keystone, just around the corner from George’s Steakhouse. But don’t let the tricky location put you off. This place is well worth the effort to find and visit, and visit again. Inside, there is an atmosphere of restrained elegance. Tablecloths are starched, the décor is tasteful but unobtrusive and the dining room uncramped and airy. If you choose to eat in the bar, the atmosphere is a notch or two more lively, service is affable and conversation is louder. Live music is a regular feature, and those who choose to can smoke with abandon. This cozy and frequently teeming bar is a favorite with restaurant types: It’s one of the last places to close on the weekends, being open until 3 a.m. If local Italian restaurants have anything in common with each other, it is that their wine lists are frequently very reasonably priced. Arturo’s is no exception, with plenty to choose from in the $25 range. The list is quite short, but very well-chosen. So often one finds that the opposite is true. Alongside the usual chiantis and more readily-recognizable offerings are a few selections from lesser-known regions of Italy. And so it was, having chosen a big, bold and very reasonably priced red from Apulia, in the heel of the boot of Italy, that my friends and I recently launched into a few appetizers, beginning with the calamari fritti ($6.25). The ample portion of squid was perfectly prepared: blanched, lightly breaded and expertly cooked. When done well this is a great dish. Next, we tried the ravioli gorgonzola ($6.25). This is a pretty substantial plate for an appetizer, and has become something of a signature dish for Arturo’s. The large pasta squares again were perfectly cooked and the sauce rich, creamy and slightly tangy. Forgoing salads, we went straight into the main course. The highlight of the entrée course had to be the involtinni, which consists of parcels of veal wrapped around Italian sausage, served in a white wine sauce. On a previous occasion, this had been a little tough and overcooked, but this time it shone. For about the same price, we also enjoyed an excellent veal piccata: thin scallopini served with capers and lemon juice. We may have overdone it a little on the veal front this time, but that’s what you come to Arturo’s to eat. A pasta dish was also, I seem to recall, most enjoyable, but memories of its precise details are sketchy, at best. Must be the second bottle of the excellent little Apulian red interfering with the neurons. Much satisfied, and glowing with gastronomic joy, we skipped dessert, and enjoyed instead a couple of grappas and several large and wonderfully strong espressos. One of the many great things about Arturo’s is that you don’t have to worry about getting booted out at the end of the evening, unless you misbehave, that is. Chef Patrick is quite the nightowl, and is more than likely getting into his stride while most of us are losing our second wind. All in all, Arturo’s offers sound, generally well-prepared northern Italian cuisine using plenty of fresh ingredients. It’s not exactly cutting-edge, but then I think that’s because it doesn’t want to be. If the number of diners who make Arturo’s a regular feature on their dining schedule are anything to go by, then consistency is the key. Hear Neil Charles each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.