You haven't heard of Neal Cooper? That's because he, unlike other chefs in this town who perhaps lack such gastronomic backgrounds, doesn't have a PR machine typing and hyping and cooking up all manner of bullish bios for the public to swallow willfully (shame on you for being so gullible).
You have heard of Neal Cooper? I guess you've been around long enough to recall his eponymous Neal's restaurant from ten years ago -- next door to Il Migliore's current locale (a spot now tenanted by Fish Joynt). Like the old Neal's, Il Migliore evokes rustic Tuscan décor, the walls softly muraled with conventional Italian symbols (olive branches, grapevines, gently sloping hills) interrupted by the occasional antique wooden shelf lined with countrified jugs and bottles of olive oil. White linens drape the tables, water is poured from painted ceramic pitchers, and the waitstaff is well trained, well dressed in fitted blue shirts and ties, and well versed in wine. Il Migliore is an exceedingly vine-friendly place, offering "25 wines for $25" and other reserves (a good number of which are available by the glass) more likely to elicit envy from connoisseurs. About half the bottles hail from Italy; the rest are West Coast with a smidgen of Chilean, Australian, and the other usual suspects.
The myriad restaurant details are attended to with almost military precision. A few simple slices of warm sourdough bread arrive promptly at the table with colorful tins of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar standing by. Other soldiers of proficient service follow in step: water, wine list, menus, a no-nonsense recital of nightly specials, and a proper interval for perusal. As you place your order, the waiter writes without comment -- doesn't say, "One of my favorites!" as if you care a whit about your servers' whims; doesn't say, "Good choice!" implying what your companion is about to request might be a pedestrian pick, or even a bad one. As professionally as the waiters comport, a breezy air of lively congeniality still animates Il Migliore, and the provincial space buzzes with the chatter and clatter of a true trattoria.
The menu and cuisine are as elemental as can be. Like those homespun Tuscans, Cooper favors fresh ingredients over complex cooking techniques. Actually there's no cooking involved when it comes to cold appetizers of prosciutto, bresaola, and beef carpaccio, all lavishly portioned and plated in unadulterated fashion. A starter of seared ahi tuna with pickled ginger, wasabi, and ponzu sauce is the only non-Mediterranean dish on the entire menu, and it sticks out like Yao Ming on a bocce court; the chef should bounce this one.
A Mediterranean-style chopped salad proved a bit more involved than those gourmet antipastos -- shreds of romaine lettuce flecked with tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives, baby garbanzo beans, and grated ricotta salata tossed in a lusciously light lemon dressing. Spinach salad sprouts a garden's worth of contrasts via a sprightly mix of Gorgonzola cheese, candied walnuts, cremini mushrooms, grape tomatoes, and a pancetta-punctuated balsamic vinaigrette. Caprese salad brought bright white wedges of fresh mozzarella alternated with thick, vibrantly red slices of tomato, making other restaurants' renditions seem unplugged. Pasta e fagioli was too thick with cannellini beans, too thin of everything else.
Il Migliore's pastas attain elegance through restraint. Fresh, eggy fettuccine noodles are blissfully tossed with wild mushrooms and white truffle oil. Spaghetti pomodoro employs the same sweet, fire engine red tomatoes as the Caprese, but skinned, seeded, cut into filets, and perfumed with olive oil and basil. Burly tubes of rigatoni buttara are buttressed with minced spicy sausage, peas, and a mildly creamy tomato sauce. There are no unnecessary notes.
Second-course entrées similarly rely on honest ingredients and uncomplicated embellishments. Grilled meats -- skirt steak, pork tenderloin, and lamb chops -- are piled onto plates dressed only in varying combinations of garlic, lemon, olive oil, and fresh herbs; they are so juicy and sensibly seasoned they require nothing else. The same could be said for tender veal scaloppine, but smothering the marsala version was a gravylike mushroom-laden sauce too heavy for the delicate meat cutlets -- one of Il Migliore's few errors. Better off getting the veal piccata style with lemon and capers, the same treatment given the tilapia. (We didn't try the fish but overheard a woman at the next table tell her guests: "It was to die for.") Other seafood options include grilled salmon with mustard vinaigrette and the nightly special (which on one occasion was whole brook trout, a gutsy, high-fat catch to offer).
"Pollo 'al mattone'" is the only menu item written in red, a stark signal of its signature status. Roasted while flattened under the weight of a brick, the baby chicken was a singularly moist and tasty bird, pleasantly aromatized by an herb marinade, and worthy of its special designation.
Although main courses are amply portioned and popularly priced (all except the lamb chops are under $20), their à la carte nature dictates side orders are in order. Just $3.95 buys a hefty little dish of pasta marinara, although it seems everyone asks for the potatoes "alla Toscana," a towering platter of crunchy, golden brown homemade fries tangled with fried herbs. It's a little late for the Best French Fries accolade, but consider these an early favorite for next year's contest. Sautéed spinach was also fantastic: a big steaming plate of greens softly imbued with slices of roasted garlic and infused with the green apple aroma of quality extra virgin olive oil. A prodigious pile of asparagus comes pepped with Parmesan -- perfect!
The wide array of Il Migliore's desserts, all of which are made on the premises, ranges from $5.95 to $7.95. Flourless chocolate cake was rich, smooth, impeccably fresh, and served with a mound of vanilla ice cream. The same ice cream accompanied apple cristata, a warm round of soft pie crust with a baked cinnamon-apple interior. Many local restaurants charge between $8 and $12 for products shipped in from second-rate wholesale bakeries -- no doubt part of that price goes for a PR scribe to make them sound first-rate. At Il Migliore the food speaks for itself.