★★ (Very Good)
In 2010, when Joseph and Aldo Criscuolo, owners of a string of popular pizza places, decided to create the Italian restaurant of their dreams, they went straight to the source. To Corato, Italy, for unfiltered, extra-virgin olive oil, to San Daniele for prosciutto, to the renowned Ceres Culinary Institute of Torino for one of its most illustrious graduates, chef Massimo Stecchi, who has appeared on Italian television, catered celebrity events, worked at some top Manhattan restaurants including Figa, Da Silvano and Cinque Terre, and even done a star turn in Beijing. Tappo’s general manager, Gerardo Mascolo, a wine maven, cook and culinary expert in his own right, is also an Italian import.
How authentic can you get? Very. Some dishes are so traditional they take you by surprise—the way Tuscan bread, traditionally made without salt, surprised us the first time we tasted it in Italy. But Massimo Stecchi is a cosmopolitan chef with years of international experience who never pushes authenticity beyond what in this day and age tastes best.
At a preopening tasting, an antique-style mozzarella, handmade two hours before serving, was presented alongside imported mozzarella di bufala. The home-grown mozzarella received faint praise while everybody raved about the gloriously rich and creamy bufala. So only the mozzarella di bufala made it to the “Salumi” section of Tappo’s final menu. When it comes to insalata, Caesar salad (actually invented in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico, albeit by an Italian-born restaurateur) fails to make the cut—which is fine with me, because Tappo has far more interesting salads to try. Mixed greens with prawns and cannelini beans, for example. Arugula and cherry tomatoes glorified with generous shavings of Grana Padano, a lovely Po Valley cheese that looks like Parmigiana Reggiano but is milder, more delicate and less salty. Mesclun with fingerling potatoes, string beans and seared tuna. Who needs Caesar?
Tappo’s menu is really two menus: one for soup-to-nuts fine Italian dining served daily from 11 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., and one for an extensive array of pizzas, available concurrently. When Tappo opened, the thinking was to retain old customers and attract new ones by offering something for everyone—families, couples, girls’ night out, grab-a-bite Italian food fans and serious gourmets. When we turned up months later on a Saturday night to taste-test this interesting idea, it seemed to be working. Diners in various configurations drifted in and out all evening. At the table next to ours, a couple of teenagers devoured pizza while Mom nibbled tuna tartare, Grandpa put away a plate of pasta and Dad ordered a sliced rib-eye steak that looked so good I ordered one for our table to share.
We began with sautéed prawns, huge and sweet, in a light broth over grilled garlic bread. The prawns with head and tail intact were a bit messy to eat, but they were so fresh and perfectly cooked they merited the effort. Tuna tartare was also exceptionally fresh. Served with avocado, nicely chilled on a chilled plate, the portion was almost large enough to qualify as a small-plate entrée to eat with soup or salad. Carpaccio di manza won raves all around—tissue-thin slices of filet mignon, drizzled with truffle oil and shavings of Grana cheese.
The rib-eye was as magnificent as it looked under a towering crown of arugula, whose fresh green bitterness was a perfect foil for the richness of the steak. “Penne with seafood,” which I ordered with trepidation (fearing a soupy bouillabaisse poured over a ton of pasta), was a revelation. Tiny, tasty cherrystone clams, large, plump prawns and sweet little mussels glistening with sea-flavored broth shared a shallow plate with a few oversize tubes of al dente penne decorated with a spray of briny sea beans.
Regional dishes from all parts of Italy are in chef Stecchi’s repertoire. We especially liked tonno alla Siciliana, tuna steak marinated in extra virgin olive oil and herbs. The fresh, high-quality fish, calm and cool in the mouth with a subtle spiciness around the edges, came with a delightful fennel-and-orange salad. Lamb chops, thick and juicy, bore the char marks and wonderful campfire flavor of the wood-burning pizza oven.
It would take a second visit completely devoted to pizza to do justice to Tappo’s pizza menu, where 13 pizzas range from a simple Margherita to an intriguing mélange of Italian cured bacon, fingerling potatoes and truffle oil, which we sampled. Tappo’s owners are famous for their pizzas, and all around us happy customers were making a meal of them.
In Italy in the old days, homemade desserts were reserved for birthdays and religious feast days. Luckily there were a lot of both. At Tappo, every day’s a feast day and the tiramisu and panna cotta are close to divine. Soft-center, flourless cake and pumpkin crème brûlée are less authentic but equally delicious. Gelato and sorbetti are also on offer, though the Italian way would be to go for a cup or a cone at a gelateria in town. Family meals still traditionally subside, rather than conclude, with a bowl of fruit and the ritual of selecting a plum, quartering a pear or peeling an orange in one perfectly continuous spiral of peel.
Of course, even in Italy it’s different today, especially in the city. Business intrudes, Twitter calls. Time flies. Ciao, baby. Bye-bye.
51 Bank St., Stamford (203/588-9670, tapporestaurant.com)
Open Monday through Thursday 11 to 10, Friday through Sunday 11 to 11. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $7 to $13, entrées $19 to $32, desserts $9.