Thursday, November 3, 2005

GET CAUGHT UP IN THE MOMENT

Posted on Thu, Nov 3, 2005 at 4:00 AM

I haven't been fair to the Italian kitchens in town. Please try and understand – not only do I come from an Italian-American background, but also I recently lived in New York, the city that has the most Italian food outside of Italy. My neighborhood there was chock-full of hand-rolled pasta, freshly pulled mozzarella and house-cured sausages. I made a pastime of discovering the good stuff. I've carried that over to this city, which has amazing Indian, barbecue and Vietnamese cooking, but is lacking in Italian.

I was challenged – and I admit, for good reason – to check out Café Trastevere again. This little Tuscan villa of a building on Magnolia Street has been doling out decent Italian fare since the late '90s, but it's under new ownership and has revamped its menu. I hadn't been in a long time, but not much has changed. The menu is different but it still features the same type of Italian-American classics with eclectic turns that stay well within the walls of Italian cucina.

I always have fun at Café Trastevere. Don't ask me why, because I could spout off a half-dozen things that are less than perfect. It's like reading The Da Vinci Code. (I couldn't put the book down even though the writing was clichéd and the dialogue was horrendous.) The cozy room is too quiet and cramped for privacy. Our conversation was punctured four times by a manager checking on things. And service is scattered and not worth the price of admission most of the time. But I still like this place. Perhaps my favorite thing here is sitting outside under a canopy of trees and sparkling lights with a jovial bunch of friends.

Although the staff is friendly, their casualness often results in mistakes. For example, we asked what was on the cold antipasto plate and were informed of prosciutto, pancetta and an assortment of fresh roasted vegetables. What we got was a helter-skelter of crumbled soft cheeses, smoked salmon and canned red peppers. The fresh roasted veggies were represented – and this is no exaggeration – by one sliver of perfectly seasoned zucchini. We split it four ways and called the server over to find out about the missing meat. He had forgotten to mention that the slicer was broken, and the chef was substituting. We shrugged it off but still had to pay $13 for our disappointment.

After the antipasto fiasco, the food was good all the way around. I ordered a fresh and simple arugula salad ($8.95) with walnuts, Gorgonzola and shaved carrots. My friend's lasagna ($14.95) exceeded expectations – tender sheets of homemade pasta layered with fresh ricotta and seasoned meat, smothered in a plush marinara sauce. It's amazing when a dish as ubiquitous as lasagna can thrill the palate, but this one managed to do just that.

Another friend got the pork chop with white wine demiglace, kalamatas and sun-dried tomatoes. The meat was vastly underseasoned and came out almost raw. To the server's credit, he whisked it back to the kitchen and returned moments later with a well-cooked version. The sauce was flavorful enough to cover for the bland meat.

I wanted something unfussy and landed on chicken Francese ($15.95), which turned out to be just what I was looking for – a thinly pounded chicken breast dredged in egg and flour, then sautéed in a sauce of white wine, butter and lemon. The tanginess of wine and lemon was rounded out by smooth butter. This was served with a small side of penne with Parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and mixed vegetables.

Don't miss ordering from the excellent wine list, which features comprehensive descriptions of Italian wine. I was amazed at how well a young, fruity Vitiano ($7 glass) paired with our meals. With more than a dozen reds, as well as several white, rosé and sparkling varieties, there are Italian wines to match every taste. I must also add that the tiramisu ($5.50) is addictive, with real mascarpone cheese and zabaglione sauce instead of the more prevalent cheap Cool Whip concoction.

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