Trattoria da Lepri, Ellington
Frank Lepri brings his expert touch to local ingredients at Ellington's Trattoria da Lepri.
Trattoria da Lepri ★★★ (Superior)
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Good advice. But where? When Pastis in Hartford closed, its talented chef, Frank Lepri, chose a bucolic corner of Connecticut to activate plan B.
He opened a restaurant of his own in Ellington. Ellington? A smarter move than you might think. Ellington is small but growing steadily as suburbanization spreads out from the city. Restaurants are few and far between in this neck of the woods, but everything a chef could wish for is down the road apiece—local fruits, vegetables, herbs, meat, milk, eggs and flowers can be had almost within walking distance of the
Trattoria da Lepri’s front door.
The first thing we see when we enter is a large chalkboard listing that night’s dishes, which are erased when they run out. This is a trattoria tradition, reflecting the fact that trattoria chefs buy their ingredients daily and serve only what’s freshest and best. When the beets are gone, they’re gone. But there’s always something equally tempting on offer. Although the restaurant is small (37 seats), the number and variety of dishes listed on the chalkboard are impressive.
I’m here with foodie friends and we feel like kids in a candy store. We want it all. The only way we can choose is to promise ourselves a return visit. It helps that our party includes a vegetarian, a pasta lover, a carnivore and your reviewer, by profession and inclination an omnivore.
I zero in on “shrimp sambuca,” an original creation for which chef Lepri won the Mohegan Sun Wine Fest Chef Showdown. This is a deceptively simple dish consisting of plump sweet shrimp scented with a felicitous blend of spices and glazed with sambuca, itself a bit of a mystery. An Italian liqueur made with star anise and “other flavors,” it tastes of licorice, is popular in Italy and dates back to ancient Arabia. History and awards notwithstanding, chef Lepri’s shrimp sambuca is delizioso. Look for it among the starters, modestly listed without flagging. In the old country, who knew from signature dishes? The chef cooks what he likes.
In Ellington, Lepri likes to play around with fresh local ingredients, innovating but never stepping out of the classic trattoria tradition he has chosen to follow for his restaurant. Vegetarians will be in heaven here. My friend Jacques has ordered a tomato-and-caramelized-onion tart, a luxe conceit involving fresh pesto and creamy Boursin cheese. Crowning the tart is a crisp Parmesan toile filled with a miniature green salad. It’s almost too pretty to eat, but too mouthwateringly tasty to resist.
In contrast, a poached-lobster-and-lump-crab appetizer couldn’t be more straightforward. Nothing, but nothing, detracts from the rich flavor and firm tenderness of the lobster and the delicate sea taste of the crab. Red beet ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and laved with pistachio vinaigrette puts pasta salad in a whole new league.
Traditionally trattorias are family-owned. The husband cooks and the wife runs the front of the house. Or vice versa. Sometimes both cook, as is the case with Trattoria da Lepri’s “Spaghetti with Sunday Sauce.” Debbie makes the sauce, and Frank makes meatballs and sweet and hot sausage to simmer in it. “It takes almost the whole day,” Debbie explains, “so it was always served on Sunday, when the whole family would be together.” I say any family would be in luck if their spaghetti were as tasty as the Lepris’.
We ordered beef short ribs because we were told they were one of the trattoria’s most popular entrées. At first sight, they look same-old, but they have been braised in a balsamic demiglaze, the onions in the sauce are candied vidalias, and served alongside is an interesting cold fingerling potato salad. Tradition with an ever-so-simple twist.
Veal Milanese is also familiar, but garnished differently. Veal cutlets pounded thin and breaded with panko crumbs are topped with a thicket of spiky greens dressed with an assertive lemon caper vinaigrette that tastes sharply of mustard. You either like it or you hate it. It’s a matter of taste. Traditionalists might prefer the salad served on the side. Also (and this is a quibble), serving two plate-sized cutlets strikes me as overgenerous. But trattoria cooking is home-style cooking, and when did Nonna skimp? Mangia, mangia!
When the Mediterranean sea bass arrives, we do just that. Braised with garlic, tomato and rosemary and served over wild rice, it transports us to a seaside café in Capri.
Before we even know what’s available for dessert, we find ourselves admitting that there are times when we would trade the most exquisite French pastry for an ice cream sundae. But chef Lepri is way ahead of us, with ice cream creations that outshine our fantasies: ice cream sandwiches made with chocolate chip cookies and mint chip ice cream, an apple tart with cinnamon-swirl ice cream and caramel sauce, and even a chocolate cookie dessert featuring s’mores ice cream. How could he know? And how could he also know that we would be crazy about a melon-and-berry medley served in a martini glass, the melon marinated in vodka and Midori and topped with cantaloupe sorbet?
We leave marveling at the attention to detail that characterized our meal. These are labor-intensive dishes. Commercially oriented restaurants would streamline them or rule them out. But Frank Lepri is a chef’s chef. He loves a challenge, he loves to cook, and you can taste it.
Trattoria da Lepri
89 West Rd., Ellington (860/875-1111)
Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 4 to 9, Friday till 10, Saturday 5 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: antipasti $4 to $6, appetizers $5 to $7, entrées $17 to $23, desserts $6.Trattoria da Lepri, Ellington