Trattoria Il Trullo, Avon

 

★ [Good]

Buy a trullo, rent a trullo, refurbish a trullo for your vacation home. In Italy, it’s all the rage—which is only part of the reason Rocco Carbone named his recently opened restaurant in Avon for the ancient stone buildings with cone-shaped roofs that characterize the province of Bari where he grew up.

The elfin, Lord of the Rings quality of these strange structures is enough to enchant anyone, but for Carbone, who is 49 and lives with his wife and three children in Glastonbury, trulli are reminders of his childhood in Italy—most memorably the family dinners he gobbled up as a kid and early on helped prepare.

Naming a restaurant in a modern minimall for an old stone hut seems a bit odd. Happenstance or sophisticated joke? Either way, the well-designed space with plenty of parking should serve Rocco Carbone’s concept well, especially when full.

But it’s a hard launch. If you don’t know it’s there, you won’t know you’re there. Il Trullo, in building No. 8, along with other businesses, opens off an interior foyer, where the doors, probably by regulation, are all uniform. But when did an Italian let a building get in the way of hospitality? A table for two set up in the foyer in front of Il Trullo says “welcome” in universal sign language.

Rocco Carbone himself stands inside at a sort of command station between the bar and the restaurant, which are close but separate and should please singles and families alike. He’s a gracious host and a hardworking front of the house, keeping an eye on everything and jumping in to help when needed.

No mom-and-pop shop this. The decor is discreet, with a few good paintings and photographs of Trulli setting the tone. There’s a chef from Rome in the kitchen expertly preparing regional specialties from Bari to Tuscany, Piedmonte and Chianti. The gigantic laminated menus detract, and persist in sliding off table and lap, but who cares when what is printed thereon is a traditionalist’s dream? Controversy is obviated by preparing the same ingredient three or four ways. You want your veal alla Marsala? Saltimbocca? Parmigiana? Alla Milanese? You got it. There are 42 options, not counting sides, desserts and specials.

To complicate my reviewing task still further, I order antipasto della casa, a delicious, high-class array of prosciutto, sopressata, the spicy dry salami of Puglia, imported Pecorino, grilled peppers and black olives—enough for four to sample—a bargain at $16.95.

Carpaccio di manzo, the simple Venetian dish of sliced raw beef, olive oil and lemon, arrives awash in oil under a mountain of arugula and a plethora of capers. The beef, filet mignon, is rosy, tender, tissue-thin—beautiful but overwhelmed. I push away the embellishments and enjoy it alla nudo.

This is a matter of personal taste: embellishments, yes. Too many, no. The fried cheese balls that garnish the Caesar salad are a refreshing surprise. Bread pudding made with panettone, why not?

But for the most part Il Trullo does what it implicitly sets out to do—invoke the past. Cozzi diavolo is a case in point. My guest, Pam, raves about it because it takes her back to her childhood, when her grandmother sauced mussels with the exact same blend of flavors—garlic, basil, tomatoes and crushed red chili peppers.

Chefs get stars for the boldness of their innovation, but in the real-life neighborhood-restaurant world, preparing traditional Italian cuisine can be equally daring. After all, your customers know or think they know more than you—or have grandmothers who do. The only way to win when it comes to classic Italian dishes is to make them from scratch with the best ingredients you can find, no matter how much time and effort that involves.

At Il Trullo, an appetizer of calamari in umido and an entrée of baccala al forno do the classics category proud.

Flash-fried calamari is fairly easy to make and the crispy crust excuses a lot. But for calamari in umido, Il Trullo simply sautées ringlets and tiny whole bodies of squid with white wine, garlic, rosemary and tomato. The result is not only tasty but exquisitely tender. Somebody’s watching that sauté pan like a hawk.

There are dozens of ways to make baccala, the ubiquitous salt cod of the Seven Seas. Most are too salty for my taste. Il Trullo’s baccala al forno is not. I mention this to Rocco Carbone on one of his dining room fly-bys. “We put it in fresh water,” he says. He waits a minute (for effect?). “For two days.”

If that’s what it takes to produce this almost delicate dish, it’s worth it. The flavor is subtle as a sea breeze with just hint of salt. Carefully cooked, the fish is tender but firm, adorned with an especially bright medley of onions, olives, capers and plum tomatoes. Unfortunately, all of the above is served atop, and sinking into, a sea of soupy polenta.

Boneless short ribs suffer the same fate but the ribs are delicious, deeply flavorful, braised in Chianti and simmered in a multinuanced veal reduction. Vitello alla saltimbocca lives up to its noble reputation, the scallopini fork-tender, topped with prosciutto di Parma, fresh sage and white wine sauce, served with spinach and mashed potatoes. Ingredients can make or break this classic, and these are choice.  

Speaking of classics, I was surprised to find a lesser-known one on the menu: gamberi al limoncello, shrimp cooked with lemon liqueur, a dish I encountered long ago in Sicily at Easter. I loved it then and I love it now. Yes, it’s very sweet, but the sweetness of the liqueur is cut with a dash of fresh lemon and semi-tart cherry tomatoes. Served with Parmesan risotto and spinach it looks like the Italian flag.

The dessert list, too, is very Italian, i.e., short and homemade except for gelato and sorbets imported from Italy. The tiramisu made with mascarpone is ethereally light. Budino made with panettone tastes festive. But oh, the crowning touch is the creamy crunch of Il Trullo’s homemade cannoli, filled with fresh ricotta studded with candied fruit.

There are hits and misses here. Our entrées were served on stone-cold plates, the spinach salad was swimming in oil and the roasted red peppers lacked char. There were no knockout, wow-factor innovations. But in a newfangled world, Il Trullo’s food is comfortingly familiar, and only in memory is everybody’s mother a world-class cook.  
 

Trattoria Il Trullo
152 Simsbury Rd., Avon, 860/676-0188; trattoriailtrullo.com
Dinner Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday 4 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5.95 to $11.95, entrées $18.95 to $28.95, desserts $6.95 to $7.95.
 

Trattoria Il Trullo, Avon

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