★★ [Very Good]
In our current rush to explore the benefits and delights of natural food, we tend to think of it as a strictly American phenomenon. But similar initiatives are afoot in Europe. The Slow Food movement actually began in Italy in 1986 to promote small farms and traditional cooking, and also (Italy being Italy) to sing the praises of long, leisurely, home-style restaurant meals with family and friends as opposed to fast food on the run.
So when a friend invited me to dine at Papacelle, I was delighted but not surprised to find a menu bursting with fresh local produce prepared in mouthwateringly creative ways. Grilled local scallops with a jalapeño almond salad on black lentils. Radiatore with wild boar and porcini Bolognese. Six-hour braised venison stew in a clay pot topped with truffle-buttered puff pastry. These we tried and loved and the menu listed more, all helpfully described in graceful prose.
But hold on. Before you dash out the door, I have bad news. Eager to share this luscious bonanza, I revisited Papacelle a week later with a cadre of eager eaters to do justice to its largesse.
Alas, there was a new menu, which should have been great—new things to try, seasonal is always best, more is merrier and local farm stands were overflowing with ripening produce. But the new menu was lean and bare, an e.e. cummings poem without the poetry, a lower-case laundry list. Gone were the helpful descriptions. Gone, too, were the chef's creative compositions of meats and vegetables, greens and garnishes, sauces and fripperies like pine nuts, crispy jasmine rice cakes and Chianti-soaked raisins.
What we were faced with was a worksheet of options: Choose an entrée and add four sides from a list. Some of the best entrées had gone missing, too. Whole bronzini filleted tableside, with radicchio, walnuts and Jerusalem artichokes, for example. And what the old menu described as “a study in meatballs, one Sicilian, one Milanese and one made with American lamb.” There was now one meatball. Why?
Perforce we soldiered on, of necessity peppering our waiter with questions, which he earnestly attempted to answer while bringing food, clearing plates and assuring us that the chef had not taken off for the Isle of Capri.
That said, the soup of the day was wonderful, a hearty sea shanty brew of calamari, black lentils and bok choy. Grilled romaine came with zucchini, roasted red peppers, Calamata olives and a warm olive-and-garlic dressing, none of which was mentioned on the new menu. Delicious, but how were we to know? My favorite starter was grilled quail, juicy under a ribbon of guanciale, the tasty Italian bacon made from pork cheek or jowl.
All of the pastas are made in-house and the ravioli special, large envelopes filled with shredded roast lamb and walnuts, was unusual and delicious. Fettuccine carbonara, made with exceptionally good ingredients—egg, Peccorino and Parmigiano cheeses—was heavenly.
Entrées got mixed reviews, in part because when four people choose four different sides to go with each of four main courses, you get some clunky combinations and considerable redundancy. We ended up with a plethora of lentils and a dearth of cooked greens. Withal, Duck Two Ways was rich, moist and flavorful, consisting of a leg braised in stout and sliced breast meat with a drizzle of currant glaze. A stuffato of “Charlie Rowland” pork, beans and faro sounded like a gloriously rustic treat and, arriving in a clay pot, it certainly looked the part. But the pork was stringy and tough, the stew studded with bits of knuckle bone hazardous to teeth and macadamia nuts too rich for the already too-rich brew.
Grilled local sea scallops with roasted vegetable caponata was appealing, but flounder, to be filleted at the table, arrived almost raw. The waiter saved the day by whisking it away the minute he cut the head off. Next time around the flesh was perfectly cooked, sweet and mild.
We enjoyed an excellent, light, authentically Italianate tiramisu for dessert, along with cannoli made with “our own filling,” and the light, crunchy waffle-type wafers the Italians call pizzelle. Flourless Nutella chocolate cake was a knockout—creamy, intense, a chocolate lover’s dream come true. As for apple pie made from “our mother’s recipe,” who wouldn’t hang around the kitchen for warm, flaky pastry topped with juicy apple slices lightly caramelized with a crunchy crumb topping?
True to the Italian version of fresh, natural, home-style cooking, Papacelle does a lot of things right. They make their own bread. They make their own pasta, gluten-free on request. They buy organic, all-natural produce from local farms and credit them in print. They feature humanely raised, free-to-roam, grass-fed veal.
Clearly there’s real talent in the kitchen. We experienced it on our first visit when the chef supplied each entrée with just the right vegetable, starch, sauce and garnish. On our second visit, we had to create our own compositions. This was challenging in itself but with the new stripped-down menu proffering very few clues, it felt like choosing in the dark. Choice is good but a good chef does it better.
152 Simsbury Rd., Riverdale Farms, Bldg. 9, Avon 860/269-3121
Monday through Thursday 11:30 to 10, Friday till 11, Saturday 5 to 12. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $3.50 to $12, pastas $16 to $23, entrées $17 to $32, desserts $7 to $10.