Assaggio, Stratford ★★½ (Very Good-Superior)
Assaggio, on the Housatonic River with a harbor view, is as lavishly shipshape and dedicated to la dolce vita as an Italian playboy’s megabuck yacht. Welcome aboard, cara, a seat at the bar, perhaps? Where you can admire the boats and we can admire you?
New owners Waldir Correia and executive chef Miguel D’Onofrio (previously of Finalmente Trattoria in Westport) have gone all out to aggrandize a cavernous space that over the years has housed a series of forgettable restaurants. Plush, polished, modern with a young vibe—you won’t recognize the place. But not to worry, Assaggio’s prices have not been elevated to match. The most expensive entrée on the menu—a gigantic veal chop embellished with a blizzard of shiitake mushrooms, hot cherry peppers and more—costs $28.95. And it’s absolutely delicious.
You can eat it (and everything else on the menu) in the comfortable white-tablecloth dining room, where stunning photo murals of Tuscan farmhouses and fields of lavender and sunflowers adorn the walls, at the bar, or outdoors on a 200-seat deck where boats tie up and live music fills the summer nights with pop, reggae and all that jazz.
Assaggio’s food, ambience and decor are contemporary Italian. Today’s nonna knows the score. The menu roams the boot from top to heel, proffering specialties from every region, devoting an entire section to carpacci, listing 14 pastas and dishing everything up with a lavish hand.
I order carpaccio di manzo and receive a plate paved from rim to rim with paper-thin slices of beef tenderloin topped with a mountain of wild arugula. Generous shavings of very good Parmigiano Reggiano are tucked among the greens and extra virgin olive oil anoints all. With a glass of Ruffino Orvieto I could go home happy.
But I am here with friends to explore the full menu and we’re raring to give it a go. We order Antipasto Assaggio because like most people, we assume that if a restaurant gives its name to a dish it must be very good (or named for somebody’s rich uncle).
Antipasto Assaggio is very good, living up to its name, a nice selection of traditional components—prosciutto, bresaola, sopressata, Gorgonzola, fresh mozzarella, Gaeta olives, Parmigiano, artichokes, hearts of palm and sweet peppers. Each ingredient is a shining example of its kind. The prosciutto, for example, is from food-famous Parma. Yes, I know, San Daniele claims to make the best, but both towns have turned the raising and air curing of pork into a fine art and produce the finest prosciuttos in the world.
Because calamari fritti is such an Italian restaurant cliché we are pleasantly surprised to find two squid dishes among Assaggio’s antipasti calda, neither of them breaded and deep-fried. One consists of tiny rings and tentacles sautéed in olive oil, garlic and basil in a light tomato and white wine sauce. The other is a showstopper: four grilled squid (sans tentacles) lined up two on each side of a large Maya shrimp with the head on. The meat of the squid, snowy white with a hint of char from the grill, is tender, mild, almost nutty. The shrimp tastes both briny and sweet. This dish comes with “our own special spicy roasted pepper tarragon sauce,” but don’t slather on too much. The natural flavor of the seafood is too good to miss.
There are 14 pastas on offer. One of them, orecchietti tartufatti, has won prizes. It’s expensive ($21.95) but it’s a connoisseur’s pasta made with nothing but the best ingredients: fresh pasta (Puglia’s famous “little ears”), wild mushrooms, prosciutto di Parma, artichoke hearts, Parmigiano Reggiano and black truffle paste. Need we say more?
Of course we have to have that veal chop. It’s thick and flavorful with, in addition to the wild mushrooms and hot peppers, a scatter of caper berries and a Campari demiglace, a nice touch. As for the caper berries, I can’t remember the last time I found one on my plate, but that’s what makes dining out fun.
Salmone alla griglia proves to be wild king salmon, flaking off in silky petals at the touch of a fork. It’s cut a bit too thin for my taste and flooded with watery pesto sauce that pools on the plate—easily corrected faults—but the quality of the fish is excellent.
Having spent more than a month in Cuneo in Italy’s Piedmonte region not long ago, I am happy to report that Assaggio’s osso buco Piedmontese is the gloriously flavorful, slow-simmered, falling-off-the-bone Old World dish I remember. In Cuneo it was made with white wine. Assaggio uses Barolo, and why not? The king of wines can only make a good thing better.
Which brings us to dessert and the fact that excellence is where you find it, whether or not it’s homemade. Assaggio’s crème brûlée and tiramisu are house-made but further delights, pictured in living color on the dessert menu, are supplied by Bindi, an Italian company founded in 1946 when Attilio Bindi began delivering freshly made desserts to restaurants all over Milan. By bicycle. In less than two hours. Today Bindi whisks wonderful desserts to fine restaurants from Manhattan to Moscow to Tokyo and, yes, to Milan. You may recognize some of them. We do and eagerly order our favorites: lemon gelato swirled with limoncello, ricotta cheesecake, a pyramid of chocolate mousse, real lemons hollowed out and filled with lemon sorbet. How sweet it is—with a water view.
955 Ferry Blvd., Stratford (203) 381-9200; assaggiostratford.com
Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Dinner price range: appetizers $6.95 to $15.98, entrées $17.95 to $28.95, desserts $6.95 to $7.95.Assaggio, Stratford