A Delightful Discovery

Posted February 10, 2016 by The Argonaut in Columns

Centanni Trattoria is a traditional neighborhood hangout with stylish contemporary flair

By Richard Foss (richard@richardfoss.com)

Centanni’s menu of house-made sweet treats includes cannoli, tiramisu and torta della nonna (grandmother’s cake) Photo by Stacy S./Yelp

Centanni’s menu of house-made sweet treats includes cannoli, tiramisu and
torta della nonna (grandmother’s cake)
Photo by Stacy S./Yelp

I drive too much. My waistline says so, the barely worn soles on my tennis shoes agree and my car’s odometer makes it unanimous. If I walked more I would be healthier, spend less on gas and have a much better knowledge of Westside neighborhoods. I would be much more likely to poke my nose into those interesting shops and restaurants that I usually only see while stuck in traffic.

One such place was Centanni Trattoria, which I had noticed every time I drove down Lincoln Boulevard but never visited. It had been on my list of places to get to someday, and one night I decided that someday was now.

My first impression of the place was of a high-ceilinged room with rustic cookware and bottles hanging on burnt orange walls. Centanni is small but seems spacious because there are fewer tables than would actually fit in this space. It has the feel of an Italian neighborhood spot, as stylish as anything in the downtown area.

The cooking is classic but not fossilized, built on simple pastas but executed with modern flourishes. There are few ingredients here that an Italian grandmother wouldn’t recognize, but here they might be used with a bit more flair.

The most contemporary dish might be the house salad of turkey bacon, pear, walnuts, lettuce, spinach and Gorgonzola. It’s a nicely calibrated balance of flavors, but served in a way that emphasizes presentation over practicality. The turkey bacon was in large slices draped across the salad, which looks pretty but makes for difficult eating — it has a texture that doesn’t cut easily, so you end up with big chunks of salty meat. Next time I order this I’ll ask for it to be chopped so the blend is more even.

Two soups were offered the evening we were there, minestrone and a winter squash, and we ordered both. There are a variety of minestrone recipes all over Italy, and the only thing they all have in common is the use of onions, celery and carrots. They might be made with a vegetarian, chicken or beef stock, and contain or omit pasta or beans. This one used both chicken and vegetable stocks, and it contained zucchini but no pasta or beans. The flavor was intense and herbal, a hearty dish for a cold winter evening. The squash soup was more delicate; a bit too much in fact — we both thought it was improved by dashes of salt and pepper.

My wife ordered eggplant Parmesan, a favorite dish for her, while I picked a daily special of ravioli stuffed with roast pork loin and sautéed with pork cheeks, olive oil and pecorino cheese. I used to make fun of her habit of ordering eggplant Parmesan everywhere, but not any longer, as she calibrates restaurants by what they do with this dish. At many places it’s a breaded and fried eggplant cutlet with layers of unctuous cheese and sauce. Here it’s stacked thin slices of lightly floured eggplant with a mild sauce and a modest portion of cheese. There is no strong texture contrast, and the cheese does not dominate; the tomato sauce enhances everything else that’s going on.

The ravioli were within an Italian tradition most people wouldn’t recognize, one of rich flavors modified by only simple herbs. Pork cheeks are usually crisped into bacon or reduced, but these were unabashedly fatty and rich, modified but not disguised by herbs and cheese. They harmonized with the ravioli, which contained leaner, more intensely flavored meat. The portion looked small — seven dough packets spread across a rectangular plate — but it was quite sufficient for a good meal.

Several desserts were offered, including house-made tiramisu and cannoli, and we asked our server Patrick for a recommendation. After asking about our tastes in sweets, Patrick suggested the cannoli — cookies that are only filled with sweet cheese once you order them. There is a lot of latitude in the way these are made; some have strong flavors of chocolate, dried fruit or coffee, but these were subtle. My wife enjoyed the taste of some mini dark chocolate chips; I tasted what might have been a hint of cinnamon and cardamom with the cheese. We both were happy.

Our bill ran $114, including four glasses from their well-supplied wine bar. It had been a delightful evening in a classic neighborhood restaurant. I would imagine locals who stroll these streets regularly are surprised that passersby like me haven’t discovered the virtues of the place. I wish I could explore every nook and cranny, because I’m delighted when I find one as rewarding as Centanni.


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