Rizzuto's Wood-Fired Kitchen & Bar, West Hartford

 

Rizzuto's Wood-Fired Kitchen and Bar ★★½ (Very Good-Superior)

Blue Back Square, West Hartford, (860/232-5000)

Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 till 10, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday 11 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $4 to $12, pizza $14 to $16, entrées $22 to $29, desserts $7 to $12.50.

It's the American dream. Neighborhood pizza joint adds salads, pasta dishes, Nonna's to-die-for panna cotta, moves into big fancy digs and takes off like a rocket.

Or doesn't.

It's a risky game, but it's fun to watch, especially when our favorite restaurateurs land in the winners' circle. Bill Rizzuto made the transition in a single bound, keeping his nice little pizza-plus restaurant in Bethel and opening a second place, Rizzuto's Wood-Fired Kitchen & Bar, sleek as a whippet and smart as a whip, in West Hartford's snazzy new Blue Back Square.

That was last April. It's time now to test the waters-and the wines, an all-Italian list with half-price bottles on Monday nights. We arrive and survey the scene. The wood-burning oven is stainless steel, the flat screen over the bar is a mile wide. In an open kitchen, chefs in baseball caps cook fish on an automated revolving grill and make pasta on a state-of-the-art version of a chittara, the wooden box strung with wire used in Italy in the old days to cut pasta dough into strands-fettucine on one side, angel hair on the other. 

The menu, a somewhat confusing compendium of captions and categories, Italian and English, boxes and bold face, subheads and footnotes, suggestions and incidental intelligence ("Fired at 800 degrees in the Neapolitan tradition"), is a bear to read and even harder to put into play-"choose a combination of up to six items," "choose two meats, two cheeses, two vegetables," "make any pizza whole wheat crust add $1." "Market Fresh Fish from The Wood Grill" are listed separately on a blackboard over the bar. Decisions, decisions.

Luckily, my troop, adventurous and hungry, enjoys the challenge of seeing how many categories, dishes and ingredients we can cover in one sitting. We start with an antipasto-our choice of meat, cheese and vegetables. A lovely prosciutto di Parma, aged 18 months, goes well with paper-thin slices of excellent bresaola. Gorgonzola Dolcelatte and Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged 14 months, pass muster, as do artichoke hearts marinated in lemon. But the caponata-with pine nuts, currants and a gorgeous balsamic reduction-is probably the best I've ever had, and I have written on eggplant cookery. We're perfectly happy savoring our cheese and salumaria au naturel when along comes a collection of garnishes, intriguingly new: pear mashed with white wine, olive tapenade, truffle-scented honey, cherry-cranberry-peppercorn relish. All disappear in a flash and we argue about which one we like best. (It's the cherry-cranberry-peppercorn for me.)

Because Rizzuto's stated intent is to provide Italian restaurant fans with the dishes they know and love best-jazzed up a bit, perhaps, but authentic to the core-we order Caesar salad and linguine with white clam sauce. Both justify their perennial popularity, the salad tossed with an exceptionally sprightly dressing, the linguine, house-made, strewn with freshly chopped clams, moistened with olive oil and decorated with whole littlenecks in their shells. Forget heavy cream sauce and strong-smelling clams, this is a delicate dish. Potato Gorgonzola pizza, on the other hand, is a wildly flavorful crowd pleaser-thin slices of waxy, earthy potato luxuriate in melted cheese along with a frizzle of caramelized leek. Close eyes, savor, sigh.

I choose salmon from the blackboard, medium-rare. It arrives with again outstandingly delicious potatoes, these crushed and sautéed with olive oil. Roasted greens-escarole, chard or bok choy, it's hard to tell-are disappointingly limp and bitter. I leave them where they lie and revel in the dewy-fresh arugula salad that came with the carpaccio I ordered as a starter and providentially saved to eat later.

Duck breast with figs is the evening's special, pleasant enough but uninspired. Healthily lean, it lacks the lush juiciness of fat and the crackle of crispy skin. A richer sauce might have compensated.

Service to this point has been friendly and eager to please but oddly disorganized. Two servers took our drink orders and no drinks arrived. After that, more often than not, it's been hurry up and wait, but we like the way every member of the staff is ready to jump in and bring us whatever we want and need. Great morale is nice to see. Bill Rizzuto, who, we have been assured, "is always here," is not. Before our desserts arrive, however, he rushes in and goes from table to table meeting and greeting with infectious enthusiasm. Clearly he loves this place. So where has he been? Around the corner at a Taste of  Hartford charity benefit cooking and serving food his restaurant has donated.  

All is forgiven, and even as we speak our desserts arrive-hedonism on a plate, or in a glass if you ordered from the list of Liquid Desserts. How about a "Chocolate-Covered-  Cherry Martini," a concoction of Skyy cherry vodka, crème de cocoa, Godiva milk chocolate liqueur and a splash of grenadine?

But we're driving, so we stick to solid ground, craving and raving about toasted almond panna cotta with salted caramel sauce and almond brittle. Remember peanut brittle? Rizzuto's talented pastry chef makes it in the kitchen with pumpkin seeds to decorate a pumpkin tart. We try a chocolate pecan tart, too, and both are delicious. Italian cookies sound good and look pretty on the plate but I've had better biscotti, butter cookies and minicannolis elsewhere. Stick with the panna cotta, the tarts, or try a cherry cheesecake unlike any other in its presentation.

I'll say no more; Rizzuto's likes to ring in little surprises and so do I.

Rizzuto's Wood-Fired Kitchen & Bar, West Hartford

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