Thursday, April 28, 2011

Northern Italian Fare: Feast for the Midwest Palate

Trattoria, Ristorante, Osteria.  We've all seen various Italian restaurants in the US with one of these appellations appended to the name:  Bellisimo Ristorante, Speidini's Trattoria, L'Osteria Italiano.  I suppose it's an attempt to whet the customers appetite, and entice them into an "authentic-style" Italian restaurant.  The meanings of the words vary, as you would expect.  In Italy, a Ristorante is the most formal of the three, and tends to focus on truly exquisite examples of local cuisine.  It's where you'll find the tables and the waiters clothed in white.  An Osteria is the most informal of the three, typcially the host or owner greets the guest, tablecloths are red and white checked, and the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality.  In the US we might say it's a restaurant that churns and turns the clientele.  A Trattoria is the in-between restaurant, typically they feature several local specialties, generally no pre-printed menu, casual waitservice, and wines sold by the decanter rather than the bottle.  However in the U.S. (unless you're in a cosmopolitan area), the names have blended and in many cases there is little distinction between the three, as far as service and quality of food.  They all tend to be better than the local place called "Joe's Italian Restaurant".  So if you have a choice, go for the place that's spelled funny.
Locally, we have a family-owned restaurant known as Vaccaro's Trattoria (see explanation of Trattoria above).  It had been some time since I had visited, but we had a special occasion to celebrate, so I thought we'd give it a go.  Prior to our arrival, I made reservations through Open Table.  (If you are familiar with Open Table, skip to the next paragraph, as I am going to give it a plug here.  Open Table is the easiest way to make online reservations at hundreds of restaurants across the country.  Plus, you earn points when you use it, and you can accumulate the points to use for savings when you eat out.  It's a good deal!)

When I made the reservations, I advised the Maitre'D that we were celebrating a special occasion.  It was the 50th anniversary of my date's birth.  Kind of a big deal.  We were not likely to celebrate the event a second time.

Upon arrival, we were quickly seated, and advised that Tina would be our waitress and would be arriving shortly with menus.  Within minutes, Suave Handsome returned with two Blood-orange Bellini's in hand, and a congratulatory smile on his face.  What a pleasant surprise!

Tina arrived with our menus, but quickly ran through the specials.  Two stood out.  The first was a fresh Tomato-crusted Red Snapper served with mashed potatoes and asparagus.  The second was her recommendation to celebrate the special occasion.  The chef would create a special 4-course meal for us, to include a wine flight, starting with an appetizer, salad, small entree, and ending with a dessert.  All were created from fresh, local suppliers, including their own herb garden which we could see directly out the window.  Temptation whispered in my date's ear. 

As Tina described the 4-course meal, her gestures became more and more animated.  Within seconds, she had knocked over one of the bellini's.  Oh no!  Blood-orange bellini on a white tablecloth.  Not to worry!  She covered it with a spare napkin and continued to describe to us the morsels of goodness that awaited us.

We ordered our appetizer and asked for some time to consider our choices for the entree, they were all so tempting.
She returned with a glass of Prosecco to take the place of the spilled Bellini, and our bread and olive oil.  The bread was hearty and whole-grained with pistachio, poppy seeds and oatmeal. 

But now was the time to make the choice.  4-course meal, Snapper, or something equally delicious off the menu?  How about the Doug Root Pizza, featuring fra Diavolo sauce, pepperoni and stuffed hot banana peppers?  No, we had ordered the banana peppers as appetizers.  He chose the Snapper, and I ordered a tasty-sounding Veal Monticello to be accompanied by a Rosso Toscana (Pinot Noir from the Tuscany region in Italy).

Hot and bubbling, the two banana peppers arrived, nestled warmly in their comfy casserole dish and covered by baked mozzarella.   Oh, the aroma of fresh-baked cheese, tomato-y sauce, real Italian sausage and fresh peppers melded together and migrated towards us. 
We cut into the first pepper and spooned the steaming goodness onto our plates.  Anticipating heat beyond belief, we took our first taste, bread on guard to take the heat off if necessary.  The pepper was hot, but not unbearable.  The Italian sausage was hot and juicy, enveloped by fresh roma tomato sauce, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and fresh herbs.  We could have gone home sated with just a taste of the appetizer.
Just as we finished up the peppers, Tina returned with our entrees.   "Careful the plate is very hot", she cautioned.  Veal Monticello.  It's a perfect combination of veal, buttery sauce, and delightfully prepared vegetables.
Sun-dried tomatoes shared the plate with the sumptiously sauteed veal cutlets, along with a mushroom medley, asparagus, artichoke hearts and capers.  All the flavors were brought together by the lemon butter sauce.  It was a lovely combination of flavors, and was a testament to Northern Italian cooking.  Sadly, I was not able to finish the entire meal and looked forward to bringing some home to enjoy on another night.  Even more sad, they frown on doggie bags.

But, the evening did not end on a low note!  Not at all.  The Rosso Toscano was quite dry, a lovely burgundy shade, and complemented my veal quite well.  Best of all, it was a Rosso Quartino, which means they serve an extra large portion.  As I was finishing my wine, Tina came by again, this time to tempt us with desserts and coffees.  We thought briefly about ordering the creme brulee.  Instead, we simply asked for the check.

Just as my date turned to gaze deeply into my eyes and utter some romantic sort of  comment, Tina interrupted us once again.  This time, she brought us a small plate of warm, freshly baked and cinnamon-sugared homemade Italian donuts.   I thought I had died and come back as a 7 year old girl in my mother's Saturday morning kitchen.  There is nothing as delicious as homemade Italian donuts.  Italian mamas used to bake bread regularly, and those with small children, would alway reserve a small portion to deep fry, then coat in cinnamon sugar for their delighted children.  Vaccaro's had truly gone above and beyond all expectations to make our special event very special.  What an unexpected and delicious ending to an already wonderful meal.

And then Tina brought us our check.  While the evening was truly a tasty time, the bill was.  Well, let's just say I was glad we had our Living Social coupon to help offset the bottom line.


  1. You're quite the traveller--and connoisseur.

    I saw that you visited Rhymes blog, and so I came over to warn you about him. He's got the reputation of something of good influence on people, and that kind of thing can ruin you in a hurry if you're not careful.

  2. Snowbrush - thanks for the heads up about Rhymes. I'll keep my eyes open for any undue good infuential moves he might make!

  3. If you want to know how I really feel about Rhymes, read my last comment to him following my last post, the one that begins with the Thoreau quote. Part of why I appreciate him is that he and I don't agree about much of anything. It's very unusual to be friends, even blogging friends, in the face of such profound differences. I don't know how we do it.

  4. Well, it certainly sounds delicious. And a very late happy 50th to your date. I'm glad you had an enjoyable evening at the restaurant/trattoria. Smiles about your remark about it not being likely to celebrate his 50th a second time. ;-)