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Beef and pork meatballs

You don’t have to be Italian to truly appreciate an authentic Italian meal. Conchi and Vicente Contreras, natives of Ecuador and owners of Rustica Ristorante, are proof positive you don’t have to be Italian to prepare one, either. The wife-and-husband, do-it-all duo behind the successful restaurant in Chester opened a second Rustica location last October on Boston Post Road in Milford.

“Fresh ingredients bursting with flavor” is a description that can apply to anything on the menu, which is meticulously planned and executed. The selections change with the seasons, but when a dish proves to be a major hit with customers, it will stay.

Vicente and Conchi came to the U.S. in the mid-’90s and began working at Paci Restaurant, which at the time was a new eatery at the Southport train station. Paci was their entry into Italian cuisine. It was also their education. “I worked all the positions in the restaurant,” Vicente says.

After 17 years of learning the tricks of the trade, Vicente and Conchi, along with partners from Paci, opened Rustica’s first location in Chester in August 2013 (they bought out their partners in April 2016). They are quick to praise Scott Eckenrod, a former chef at Paci who died last February and a man whom Vicente calls “our mentor.” “He taught me how to make the pasta, he taught me the sauce, a lot of stuff like that,” Conchi says.

Conchi says she reads a lot about Italian food and then “fixes” certain recipes and ideas, adding and subtracting until it’s just right. “Like the pasta, when [Eckenrod] taught me, he taught me that one way. I try to fix it and get it better and better and better.”

Coincidentally, “better and better and better” is an appropriate way to describe my first three visits to Rustica. The appetizers set the tone each time. The beef and pork meatballs ($12) are tender and delicious, the marinara sauce vibrant and delicate. For the bruschetta ($10), Conchi concocts a carnivorous twist on the traditional version by adding meat and heat. A grilled baguette serves as the staging area for a gathering of grape tomatoes, garlic, parsley, house-made sausage and a drizzle of hot pepper chili oil.

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Antipasto

Menu salad descriptions rarely catch my eye, but Rustica’s offerings were intriguing enough that I twice ordered plates of the green stuff. The shaved Brussels sprouts drizzled with house-made lemon preserve and pecorino cheese was a refreshing triumph (and a recent seasonal menu casualty) but the lettuce with champagne vinaigrette, dried cranberries, sliced red apples and brie ($9) stepped up as a suitable replacement.

Conchi makes the pasta fresh every day for both locations and, because the couple has no set arrangement or agreement with distributors, together they go shopping every morning for fresh, local ingredients. And while some may consider daily grocery shopping one of the Circles of Hell, Vicente and Conchi say they love it … with one exception. “I hate to go shopping when I have the soccer game to watch,” Vicente says.

There are six pasta options on the menu, but customers can combine any pasta with any sauce by request. The gnocchi ($22) is a pillowy pile of perfection and the Bolognese sauce has great flavor without being overly meaty. Conchi’s pairing of pappardelle with cauliflower, fennel sausage and caramelized onions ($23) is unique and hits the mark. The fettuccine al pesto ($23) is a basic chicken-and-pasta recipe that benefits from flawless execution. But the premier pasta course on the menu is the ravioli filled with braised short ribs in a red wine demi-glace sauce ($24).

The main courses give Vicente time to shine. “I love to be on the grill,” he says. “I’m the meat guy.” He’s also the wine guy, and the reds and whites are a top focus at Rustica. “I was very interested to learn about wine. So I went to many wine dinners. All the wine dinners they do in the restaurants, I was the first one [on the list]. Pairing food and wines, I’ve got a passion for that.”

The only pairing I needed with the ossobuco ($32) was a fork. The simmered veal shank with carrots, celery, garlic, onions and red wine is served over saffron risotto, and it was a dining pleasure to try to capture all the flavors in each forkful. Rustica also offers a basic chicken parm and sirloin steak in addition to pan-seared halibut and salmon. We didn’t get to those yet, but will soon.

If you can save room for dessert, do so, as the final courses are also house-made. The affogato — a scoop of vanilla gelato drowned in a shot of espresso and topped with whipped cream — is the perfect nightcap. Another solid closer is the semi-sweet chocolate lava cake.

The menu at Rustica is not expansive yet still diverse, and, at the time we spoke, Vicente was in the planning stages for Tuesday wine dinners in a private room which can hold 20-25 people. “We are trying to offer creativity with the food,” Vicente says. “I want the people to come and try the food with a nice glass of wine that we can recommend.”


This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. 

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