La Trattoria Regioni goes back to the source for regional favorites
May I present you with the wine list?” our ceremonious waitress asked, almost before we had settled into our seats. We looked up, stunned by the formality. When had we last been “presented” a wine list? But in that burgeoning culinary region of 146th Street, where water towers for Westfield and Carmel loom like aliens from The War of the Worlds, things are a little different. While strip-mall denizens are familiar, Lowe’s or Stein Mart for example, they all sport a spiffy finish making it clear how seriously Northsiders take their commerce.
A linguine with shrimp in a vodka sauce ($23)
Thus it is at La Trattoria Regioni, the newest enterprise of chef and restaurateur Dan Frost. While Eh!Formaggio, Frost’s growing pizza franchise, has more of a sense of humor with its New “Yawk” slices, La Trattoria aims for an elevated French style of service: all black, white, “sir” and “madam.” The host had asked us if it was a special occasion. Then he sighed, lamenting that he had a “great” waitress for us but not a “great” table in her section. But only two tables in the restaurant were occupied. How could there not be a great seat? Nonetheless, he did find us a passable table just out of sight of the kitchen. Everything about this place seems bent on transporting you across the ocean without a passport. Lifelike murals depict Venetian canals and an Italian village topped off with “windows” trimmed with silk flowers. A few tables with umbrellas lend an al fresco feel, albeit in climate-controled environs. A loud, haphazard soundtrack of Andrea Bocelli arias and Italian pop disturbs what little intimacy the wide-open restaurant allows. Things lightened up as our meal progressed. The oversized, slightly unwieldy menus are rolled and tied with string like ancient scrolls conveying the lost recipes of Sicily or Sardinia. But aside from mentions of Rome and Tuscany, little suggests intimate knowledge of the diverse regional cuisines of Emilia-Romagna, Umbria or Calabria. Indeed, the dishes are quite familiar: veal picatta, pasta Bolognese. Instead, it’s what they do with old favorites and contemporary twists that makes them regions beyond your local Italian takeout. Therein lies the true charm of La Trattoria. From handmade pastas to long-simmered sauces, this place makes just about everything taste great. We’d heard about the famous “Archo di sapore” or “Arch of flavor,” a museum-worthy parabola of garlic bread with a zillion finishing touches. But no appetizers had quite the appeal of “cozze con finocchio” ($10), steamed mussels in a saffron cream sauce with Pernod. The sauce was a little thick, not the typical broth to sop up with bread. In fact, we had to ask for something crusty to swab the bowl. But the mussels were meaty and tender, and the flavors of wilting fennel and roasted garlic made this a knockout starter we couldn’t get enough of. Salads were huge and served on sleek rectangular plates, which were hard to negotiate on our small table. A spinach salad ($9) offered a complex mix of baby spinach with pine nuts, caramelized onions, fried pancetta and creamy gorgonzola. Two luscious portobello mushrooms sliced almost like sashimi tuna framed the salad. While the flavors married well, the salad was somewhat overdressed, weighting down the tender spinach. The Caprese ($8), our waitress’ favorite, had thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes and a tangy balsamic dressing. Here, however, the tomato and mozzarella were so cold from the chiller we could barely taste them. A warmer salad would have offered more flavor. For entrées, we split the difference: pasta and veal marsala. A linguine with shrimp in a vodka sauce ($23) came in an offset bowl with a long breadstick like a crispy antenna. The pasta was so al dente as to be chewy, and the sauce was slightly dry. But artichokes, fat shrimp and visible bits of sweet shallots rounded out the mild flavors nicely. The veal ($26) demonstrated the kitchen’s prowess with sauces. Paper thin laces of meat were tender, if a bit over-breaded, but the tangy, earthy marsala sauce, while applied generously, was an elixir with beguilingly rich flavors. More bread for this one, please! Two dainty ovals of polenta could have been seasoned more, but with that sauce, we just didn’t care. A nice selection of house-made desserts included tiramisu, an Italian “éclair” and, our choice, a light, creamy zabaglione regioni ($9) chockfull of tart berries. Though a tad thin, this was a wonderfully light finish with an additional kick of marsala. By this point, our waitress had warmed up, loaded us down with our leftovers and sent us forth into the suburban dusk with the familiarity one expects from a truly authentic Italian trattoria. La Trattoria Regioni 2250 E. 146th St. 819-5300 Dinner Sunday-Thursday: 5-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday: 5-10 p.m. Food : 4 Stars Atmosphere : 3 Stars Service : 3.5 Stars