Down the Middle
If you go by the menus of the Italian restaurants in our little town, you can only conclude that one of the world's most glorious and diverse cuisines consists mainly of pizza, fried calamari, pasta with red sauce, and tiramisu.
Italy's great artisanal and regional specialties — hand-crafted salumi and cheeses, the crespelle of Abruzzo and panzanella of Tuscany, Ligurian farinata, and Sicilian wild boar and rabbit ragouts — are about as common here as a moderately priced Barolo on South Beach.
Well, all right. If we can't have the exciting, the adventurous, the unfamiliar, then at least we can expect all the usual suspects of our local Italian cuisine to be prepared with superlative ingredients, exacting technique, and consistent, rigorous attention to detail. Right?
Uh, no. Mostly what we get are Italian restaurants of varying degrees of okay. La Terrazza is okay, perhaps aspiring to really, really okay. It is a good-looking place, not as big as it seems from the street, with a spacious outdoor patio under a striped awning and a smallish dining room crammed with a long bar, wood-fired pizza oven, wine racks, and plenty of close-set tables.
The black-clad staff is relentlessly efficient if not all that personable; the wine list is evenly divided between California and Italy and rarely strays from familiar territory. (It can, though, be breathtakingly pricey: A pleasant but not exceptional 2005 Antinori Santa Cristina Sangiovese, which retails for about $10, commands a hefty $39 tariff.)
As for the food, goat-cheese-stuffed Portobello mushrooms take a stab at originality. The roasted fungi, sandwiching a smear of mild herbed goat cheese, are bedded down on garlicky spinach sautéed with too much oil, and then accented with dribbles of balsamic syrup and thin slices of crisp pancetta. Pasta e fagioli, the classic Tuscan white bean soup, could have been made with a stronger stock but did boast plenty of tender beans, al dente pasta, and coarsely chopped veggies.
You'll have to take the menu at its word that the house-signature ravioli are stuffed with a force of lobster, crab, scallops, and shrimp, because the combination betrays little if any crustacean flavor beneath its mantle of creamy, tomato-based "aurora" sauce. The pasta, though, was quite fine — thin and delicate and worthy of a more flavorful filling.
Vitello Milanese arrived on a platter hidden under a thin-pounded veal chop large enough to have its own zip code and sporting a bronzed, crisp breadcrumb crust. Nicely done — tender and tasty. Its promised arugula, cherry tomato, and balsamic salad, though, was an artless jumble of tough arugula leaves and pallid cherry tomatoes naked of any balsamic vinegar. You could dress it up with olive oil from the table and a squeeze of lemon from the two miserly slices included with the dish, but after a few bites, the whole thing just seemed heavy and boring.
Of course there is tiramisu, the dessert that went from obscurity to ubiquity faster than you can say, "Holy cannoli!" With its moist and bracing espresso-soaked ladyfingers, airy whipped mascarpone tasting of sweet cream, and dusting of faintly bitter cocoa powder, it was much better than okay. Good, even — a standard of Italian cookery that diners in our little town would probably enjoy getting used to.
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