Real Live Italians
Two New Places with Pottery and Pasta
Ristorante Doria has photos of 1960s Italian movie stars, large paintings of Mediterranean vistas rendered with idiosyncratic depth perception, multiple figurines of chubby chefs, Italian pottery, and plastic grapes. The tablecloths are white; the lights are bright. Ristorante Doria serves "classic" Italian food—a roster of pasta, entrées in the marsala/parmigiana mode—made by a real live Italian guy: Chef Marcello Giuffrida was born in Rome. According to the menu's charming ESL, "He has named this establishment 'Doria' in honor to his mother whom planted the seeds to his lifelong devotion to cooking."
Guiffrida's a charmer himself—the specials delivered in his accent casts a certain spell, and did he make a joke about strozzapreti? You might then be turned over to the care of one of his countrymen, who is delighted to inform you that strozzapreti means "priest choker." "I like to strangle a priest!" the server says. "Who doesn't!" He's from Rome, too, and also has a great accent, and everyone's laughing at the idea of killing priests. (There are several theories about how this seemingly innocuous, curled-in-on-the-edges pasta shape got its name, none of which make any particular sense. Wikipedia notes that "the name surely reflects the diffuse anticlericalism of the people of Romagna and Tuscany." If these two Romans are any indication, well, yes.) The server also has an excellent necktie. It's from Italy.
The carpaccio di melanzane ($8.95) is very thinly sliced grilled eggplant topped with lots of pickled onions, pine nuts that could've used a toasting, dots of goat cheese, and plentiful balsamic vinegar. It veers rather wildly to the sweet-and-sour; a few bites are fine, but half a large platterful proves defeating. The strozzapreti ($16.95) is floppier than it should be but not tragically overcooked, and its cream-enriched tomato sauce is laden with almost-falling-apart chunks of beef as well as sausage. The portion is salty and massive; this is the kind of fortification that would guarantee a high-quality nap during a movie at the Seven Gables upstairs afterward.
Also massive: what seems like several chickens' worth of pollo alla parmigiana ($16.95), the breast meat pounded flat, unabashedly breaded, and layered with mozzarella, "parmigiano," and tomato sauce, with a healthy layer of prosciutto furthering the sodium content. If there's Reggiano Parmesan in use here, it's hard to tell—the blanket of mozzarella also has bright orange cheese mixed in. This comes, red-and-white-checked-tablecloth style, with a side of pasta with red sauce, should you be planning to hibernate soon.
An appetizer of perfectly un-overcooked prawns with spinach and garbanzo beans in a light, garlicky, simple, and delicious tomato broth ($11.95) was my favorite thing here, besides the service. The Roman server, to a woman nearby, on the subject of grappa at dinner's close: "You will like it! It's your birthday!"
Instead of going back to Ristorante Doria, I ventured out to Green Lake's also-new, also-run-by-a-real-live-Italian Trattoria Cioppino. The chef/co-owner at Cioppino is Riccardo Simeone; he's from the town of Gaeta, on the coast between Rome and Naples, while, per the website, his "palate and culinary vision embrace the many varied cuisines of Italy." (Ristorante Doria is where Mamma Melina was for approximately forever, before it moved to near University Village last year. The Mamma Melina family also owns posh Barolo downtown, and Simeone used to cook at Barolo.)
Trattoria Cioppino used to be a World Wrapps. It's got lots of windows, cream-of- tangerine walls, and its own multifarious scheme of decor: a painting of (perhaps) a brooding dark-haired woman with (possibly) a snake, a couple black chandeliers, a section of wall devoted to copper pots, extra-giant-sized bottles of display-only Belvedere and Bombay Sapphire (hard liquor is not served), Italian pottery, and more. The open kitchen combined with a tile floor makes for a notable clatter—which is, arguably, as a neighborhood trattoria should be.
The server here was also unendingly nice, if devoid of accent. We caught the end of happy hour—many full-size regular-menu items for half price—and ordered an inordinate amount of food, including his recommendation of gnocchi. He graciously commended our greed and said, "I will bring it to you logically," which is exactly what you want to hear.
A Caprese salad ($5.50 happy hour/$7 regular) had disappointingly firm slices of tomato, at this, their ripest moment, but was fresh and prettily arrayed. The polipetti affogato—"Baby Octopus 'Drowned' in a Light Tomato Broth" ($7/$7)—made you feel like a monster but/and was a complete delight. The tiny, whole octopuses—just two or three inches long—were utterly tender, with tentacles that crunched lightly and only the intimation of brains in their heads. (The server swung by to make sure no one was horrified and to assure that, yes, you eat the whole thing.) On the gnocchi ($7/$13), the tomato sauce tasted acidic rather than bright and fresh; the dumplings seemed meant to be light, but dissolved in the mouth in a gluey way. Housemade pear-and-Gorgonzola ravioli ($7.50/$14) with fried sage leaves and candied walnuts tasted like dessert. The pasta layers were firm, the filling sweet, the sauce all thickened cream.
Since we were already implicated in the drowning of baby octopuses, we went for the veal piccata ($11/$19). It must be said: It was a singularly unappetizing plate, the pounded veal greenish-gray and glistening, sided with cooked-past-crunchy green beans and penne with the acidic tomato sauce. The veal was chewy, and the lemon-caper sauce had solely a strong, tart citrus taste. Poor baby cow, to give its life for this. "There are some problems with the food here," my companion said; meanwhile, on the sidewalk outside, a white dove, apparently a victim of passing Green Lake traffic, flopped around and then died. The server shared in our sad moment.
Trattoria Cioppino is more ambitious than Ristorante Doria—it serves Sardinian fregola, duck ragu. But both restaurants are standard-issue American neighborhood Italian places—where maybe there's that one dish you like to get before a movie or after walking around the lake. And maybe, in time, they'll get surefire across the board.