The Wonder Boys
Brothers Nicola and Fabrizio Carro are probably a little freaked out right now. Orchestrating the daily culinary operations at a bustling newcomer like Quattro Gastronomia Italiana is a tall enough order, but the two Piedmontese chefs are also busy getting acquainted with cooking in America for the first time. This means sourcing new food purveyors, searching for menu-specific comestibles and spices, ironing out the logistics of importing Mediterranean fish and specialty items, and tackling the countless kinks of a new kitchen and country while cooking up cuttlefish, calamari, and carnaroli rice for the 80 constantly filled seats of this five-week-old Lincoln Road establishment. Their work days must feel longer than that last sentence!
Did I mention that Nicola and Fabrizio are identical 30-year-old twins?
From the street, Quattro appears glitzier than it really is; passersby's eyes are drawn to what appear to be tall banks of glittering white and green lights. Upon closer inspection, one can discern a mirror-backed bar in the rear of the space, with votive candles and bottled spirits lined up on high shelves and flanked by towering wine coolers accessed by a sliding ladder. Fronting the bar area on the left and right sides are columns of empty, green-lit bottles, which divide the drinking and dining areas. The latter is warm and glowy from Murano glass chandeliers and softly illuminated frames around mirrors on the walls, and is formally spruced up with crisp white table linens and cognac-color leather banquettes. Quattro evokes the handsome, masculine look of a contemporary steak house as much as that of an upscale trattoria.
The menu, however, quickly disabuses one of this notion. It's true that you can get a 30-ounce Fiorentina T-bone (which is $58, and meant for one person), but the cuisine here is firmly rooted in the northwestern provinces of Italy notably the two titans of that region's gastronomy, Piedmont and Lombardy. You could blindly throw darts at a world map for months without hitting two better culinary influences. Lombardy, whose capital is Milan, has given the world risotto, bresaola, panettone, and Gorgonzola cheese as well as veal Milanesa, osso buco Milanesa, and so forth. (Fontina cheese was created in the neighboring region of Val d'Aosta, and pesto was invented just down the road in Liguria.) Piedmont has contributed boiled candies, bagna cauda, breadsticks (which Napoleon referred to as les petits bâton de Turin), fontina cheese, and vermouth (plus some mighty fine sports cars). Still, most epicureans trek here for the white truffles, the oil of which gets drizzled with melted butter over Quattro's exquisitely delicious, fontina-fluffed ravioli. These dainty pasta pillows are, as Brillat-Savarin once said of the knobby fungi, capable of making "women more tender, and men more amiable."
Slightly truffled but quite unruffled, we moved on to heartier courses. Vitello glassato alle cipolline boretane e martini exemplifies the provincial cooking found in the Carros's neck of the woods old-fashioned, sober, substantial. The steak-size cut of moistly braised veal (seemingly cut from the shoulder) came plainly presented on a round white plate (a rarity in restaurants these days), sporting only a tasty tangle of sweet cipollini onions melted slowly with vermouth. Other pleasant peasant-style offerings include Barolo-braised beef with polenta, and a juicy, herb-infused Cornish game hen flattened via cooking under the weight of a stone.
Our orata was horrific. Known in America as dorade, the small Mediterranean fish is known for its tender white flesh and succulent, meaty flavor, which is similar to that of pompano. Quattro's version arrived as a mushy, slippery-skinned fillet draped by raw slices of potatoes and zucchini, with incongruously thick slabs of unseasoned tomato tucked underneath. Two customers seated next to us ordered the same fish (the tables here are close), and both returned theirs on the grounds of being "undercooked." When the waiter suggested the kitchen cook it more, the patrons demanded another entrée instead. We should have done likewise, but just left most of ours uneaten. Service is generally accommodating and professional, but the staff can become brusque when busy.
A huge, pounded, neatly breaded veal chop "Milanese-style" is another hefty high-end entrée ($47), although most main courses run a more reasonable $22 to $27 (pastas $15 to $19). Not surprisingly the veal was pan-fried in butter, the preferred cooking fat in northwestern Italy, which lays claim to its invention. Julius Caesar was one of the first to enjoy butter as an edible commodity; before then, the Romans used it mainly to grease their bodies before competitions and combat. Makes you wonder whether the military arena where the Battle of Pharsalus was fought didn't smell an awful lot like the lobby of a modern-day movie theater. Be that as it may, on the side of the chop was a lemony mound of arugula leaves.
We had wanted to try barley risotto with Taleggio cheese, a unique specialty that isn't served anywhere else in town, but the kitchen was all out of barley. (Delivery dates are evidently among those aforementioned kinks to be ironed out.) By the time we returned for a second dinner, the dish was off the menu entirely.
Rather than mope, we turned to a bowl of firmly cooked penne noodles coated, not soaked, in a glowing saffron sauce softened with cream and flecked with baconlike specks. The penne pleased, but not nearly as much as the luscious lasagna, featuring spinach pasta lightly layered with beef ragout, mozzarella cheese, and only a touch of tomato sauce as identical to those I've eaten in Milan as Fabrizio is to Nicola.
The Carros are billed on the restaurant's promotional materials as the "wonder twins," a cute and memorable moniker that's a distinctive selling point for the business. Although I don't mean to diminish the brothers' estimable culinary contributions, Quattro's key players are owners Karim Masri (Hotel Astor and Bambu) and Nicola Siervo (Joia). They previously teamed to create Metro Kitchen + Bar and Mynt, and bring experience as well as a built-in nightlife following with them. The two other partners are Monferrato vintner Nicola Schön, who has assembled Quattro's expensive, all-Italian, 300-bottle wine list (including vibrant varietals from Molise and other relatively unplumbed regions, as well as superior selections from his own Colle Manora vineyard), and former NBA star Rony Seikaly, who isn't expected to put much time in on the floor each night, but provides bench strength.
Backtracking to appetizers: A pristine seafood sampler preciously plated shrimp-in-the-shell; a one-bite square of tuna in a too-cloying raspberry sauce; cuttlefish, a softer cephalopod cousin to squid and octopus; and two skinny bait-size strips of pickled sardine. The quality of the fish was undeniable, but there wasn't much to eat for $18. Another pricey ($15) starter featured carpaccio-thin slices of rare-cooked sirloin steak capped by melted scamorza cheese and a scattering of sweet grape tomatoes. The meat pretty much got lost in the smoke of the scamorza, but the cheese tasted great smeared on a wedge of wonderfully Old World wheat bread with charred, chewy, flour-smattered crust.
Quattro offers a board of cheeses culled from all over the boot, including Taleggio, Tome, Pecorino Sardo, and a Sicilian variety stuffed with red peppers. Although the dish is listed on the menu as a starter, I prefer my formaggi following a meal and at Quattro, in lieu of dessert. Like the cuisine, the chocolate mousse, panna cotta, crme brùlée, and tiramisu are simple, classic, and freshly prepared on premises. But they are dull dolci, especially a hole-less biscuit of a "black cherry doughnut." The limoncello sponge cake was a little boring, too, though undeniably spongy.
Quattro, still in its infancy, is full of promise. The owners seem committed to authentically re-creating rustic Italian cuisine, and the wonder boys have all the right notions about what constitutes good eating. The near future will bring a monthly tasting menu highlighting food and wine from particular regions of Italy, as well as an 80-seat outdoor patio (the twin number of those inside). Judging from the crowds cramming into the restaurant in August, the additional seating will come just in the nick of time; I think it's safe to say Quattro will be the upcoming season's hottest ticket on Lincoln Road. This means more people becoming acquainted with the foods of Piedmont and Lombardy, more success for Masri and Siervo, more work for Nicola and Fabrizio, and a potentially rewarding dining experience for you and your better half.
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