For the past six months, it's been quiet on the new Italian restaurant scene. The city is packed with too many of them already, the majority of which are mediocre and serve the same fare. Many are BYOB, but thankfully, that craze now includes places with spicy Thai food, authentic Mexican plates and dishes from China's diverse provinces.
I knew the Italian BYOB lull was bound to quicken when I heard about Roberto Cafe, a new trattoria on South Street. The Vincenti brothers, Roberto and Fernando from Apulia, Italy, recently opened their pretty eatery with no sign. They worked at Radicchio, a forerunner of the Italian BYOB, for a number of years. They figured if that restaurant had a loyal following, they could, too, if they cloned the formula and offered some of the dishes on Radicchio's menu.
The dining room in Roberto Cafe is a long space with yellow, sponged-painted walls and high-polished dark-wood tables finished with linen napkins and Italian crystal glassware at each place setting.
Roberto and Fernando are the servers and they brought an ice bucket for our white wine along with another pretty crystal bucket filled with ice and a pair of tongs.
Complimentary bruschetta was prepared with red ripe tomatoes, chopped basil and sweet onions. A basket of bread and a bottle of olive oil, which has replaced butter in many restaurants, kept us happy until our appetizers arrived.
Soup of the day ($5) was lentil with fresh vegetables. The homemade broth was enhanced by saut�ed onion, celery, carrots and tomatoes and arrived nice and hot.
Chef Isidro Ramos is fond of shiitake mushrooms and they appear in a number of his dishes. "Mozzarella affumicata" ($9) was a hot antipasto prepared with smoked mozzarella and topped with saut�ed radicchio and shiitake mushrooms. Although the ingredients were tasty, there was too much balsamic vinegar in the dressing, overpowering the fresh taste.
"Insalata scoglio" ($9) was disappointing. This antipasto, which was served cold, is prepared with squid, scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams in lemon and olive oil. But the seafood was overcooked, the mussels, out of their shells, were the size of an infant's fingernail and the calamari rings lacked flavor. I needed a microscope to find three tiny pieces of sliced shrimp and I am not sure scallops were even used because what looked like them did not taste like them -- they had a grainy texture, like overcooked swordfish.
I sometimes wonder why the Italian dishes I make don't look or taste the same as those in restaurants. I wrote about "Vitello alla Milanese" a few weeks ago and this restaurant's version ($20) was way off. A good-sized veal chop was pounded thin, breaded and saut�ed. It was topped with arugula, loaded with olive oil and so much balsamic vinegar it unpleasantly seeped into the meat. Instead of shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the arugula was finished with bits of chopped tomato, which also tasted of balsamic vinegar and oil. I also wondered why it did not come with any vegetables.
Veal saltimbocca ($16) is one of my favorite Roman dishes. It's made with proscuitto and fresh sage leaves, but most Italian restaurants ruin it because chefs smother the meat with too much gooey cheese and spinach. Ramos had the recipe correct. He pounded the veal, saut�ed it in a white wine sauce and topped it with not-at-all salty proscuitto. Unfortunately, he forgot the fragrant sage, which gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Instead, it was sprinkled with bits of chopped parsley. My plate included unappetizing, cold, mushy potatoes, neither mashed nor cubed, and watery, tasteless slices of grayish-yellow zucchini. Roasted potatoes with rosemary and garlic and saut�ed spinach would have made it a real Italian dinner.
Mom asked that her "penne amatriciana" be made with fusilli. Instead, she got rotelle (the corkscrew version). Penne amatriciana can be made with fusilli, which, in Italy, are corkscrew shaped. Here, fusilli are the long strands with squiggles. Traditionally, this dish is made with spaghetti. Regardless, we could hardly detect the pancetta, which is what gives the recipe its flavor.
Although the Vincenti brothers took good care of us, the kitchen needs help. Since much of our dinner lacked flavor, I wondered if any of the cooks were actually tasting the food.
Perhaps Roberto Caf� should bring in someone's nonna for a few lessons in selecting ingredients and turning them into classic Italian cucina.
One tip of the toque to Roberto Caf�.
2108 South St.
Open for lunch and dinner