HOMESTYLE ITALIAN CUISINE
Some restaurants are so romantic, cozy and spirit-warming that upon entry your anticipation soars, sometimes so high that it can’t always be realistically met by the food itself.
Such were my experiences at Quartina Trattoria & Vineria in South Norwalk, which opened in May. Though it is at ground level, the restaurant has an intimate, cavelike feel, partly because of the large trompe l’oeil mural of a cozy wine cellar with barrels, painted on the scraped brick wall that greets you upon your arrival.
Everything about Quartina draws you in, including the owner, Giuseppe Cinque, who comes by your table to welcome you, and the bustling kitchen, partially visible on the left side, beyond the long bar. The homey food, too, is appealing, with eight different pastas, plus risotto and gnocchi dominating a menu that Mr. Cinque describes as “traditional Italian.”
“We work with a lot of passion,” he said, “but we are not into fusion cooking.” Mr. Cinque knows whereof he speaks, having been a chef for years at Maria’s Trattoria and other Italian restaurants in the area.
Spaghetti, for example, arrived in a hollowed-out pecorino cheese wheel and was carefully scooped out from there and plated. While the wheel was the star, the spaghetti itself, bathed in olive oil and polka-dotted with Gaeta olives and cherry tomatoes, was a simple dish expertly prepared.
A whole roasted pompano al forno was deboned and skinned at tableside and delivered on a vibrantly decorated, oversize plate. The fish was one of the very best dishes we ordered — moist, flavorful, stuffed with fresh herbs and garlic, graced with a lemon wedge and a duet of carrots and deep-fried potatoes.
A starter of salmon carpaccio was elegantly presented on a narrow plate. Its accoutrements of Gaeta olives, capers and cherry tomatoes were artfully arranged around the tissue-thin slices of rare fresh salmon that had been marinated in extra virgin olive oil. I could have eaten twice the amount of salmon served but, after all, an appetizer is supposed to whet the appetite, not overwhelm it.
The other memorable dish that evening was a tiramisù that astonished me. I thought I’d seen all the permutations that a chef could bring to this by-now clichéd dessert. But Quartina’s version was a light, cake-shaped creation that melted in the mouth, sending delicate spasms of mascarpone cheese, amaretto and espresso to the palate.
The aforementioned courses dominated our evening, but there were other competent renderings as well. Artichoke carciofini — two artichoke hearts, with a breaded stuffing — made an acceptable starter, but might have been better with less heavy breading. Gnocchi Sorrentina, in a San Marzano tomato-basil sauce with fresh mozzarella, was more than adequate, though the potato dumplings themselves were borderline leaden.Quartina’s ricotta cheesecake was firmer than I like, but my companions praised it — de gustibus. (All desserts, Mr. Cinque said, were made in-house.)
The calamari fritti starter, though, was not the best one. Unsolicited, our waiter deleted the dish from our bill, an appreciated gesture.
Lunch was a different experience. All three of our starters were delicious. Mama’s polpette (two croquet-ball-size beef-veal meatballs) and eggplant rollatina (eggplant rolled around ricotta and mozzarella) were piping hot, and both had a fresh-tasting tomato sauce. Insalata semplice consisted of light, varied greens in a wisp of balsamic vinaigrette, topped with thin shavings of Parmesan.
As for the entrees, pollo alla griglia, moist and well grilled, played peekaboo with salad greens, red onions and tomatoes, teased with a balsamic vinaigrette. The penne in a light ground beef tomato sauce was also satisfying.
We liked everything about the tilapia Livornese except the fish itself, which seemed a tad tired; a sauce of capers, plum tomatoes and olives was luscious.
Desserts may have tried too hard. The apple tart looked sensational, like a wheel and spokes of crust and fruit, but the crust was hard to cut and the apple was minimal. A nutella crepe looked attractive, too, but it also was difficult to slice.
From now on at Quartina, it will be tiramisù every time.
Quartina Trattoria & Vineria
120 Washington Street
THE SPACE A long, narrow dining room with wooden floor, scraped-brick interior wall, trompe l’oeil mural, soft lighting, open kitchen. Wheelchair access.
THE CROWD Many couples and foursomes of varying ages, neatly, casually dressed. Wait staff welcoming, but service can be sloppy (not knowing who gets which dish, failure to “crumb” the table until requested and then cleaning just one side).
THE BAR Full bar, with mostly Italian wines, reasonably priced. Bottles, $28 to $54; 32 wines by the glass (6 oz.), $7 to $15; quartino (9 oz.), $10 to $22; mezzolitro (17 oz.), $22 to $45.
THE BILL Lunch: $14.99 prix fixe for a starter or salad and entree. Dinner: starters $6.95 to $14.95 (or 3 starters for $15); entrees $17.95 to $27.95; desserts $7 to $8. All major credit cards accepted.
WHAT WE LIKED salmon carpaccio, carciofini imbottiti, mama’s polpette, eggplant rollatina, insalata semplice; pompano al forno, spaghetto alla Cinque, penne al ragu Napoletano; tiramisù.
IF YOU GO Open for lunch: Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 3 p.m. Open for dinner: Mondays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and until 9:30 p.m. on Sunday. Metered parking on the street or in a big lot on a parallel street behind the restaurant. Valet parking Wednesday through Saturdays