Published December 27. 2012 4:00AM
One could argue that bringing an Italian-American restaurant to Westerly is like bringing sand to a post-Sandy Misquamicut Beach. Interestingly enough, though, the offerings at Trattoria Longo Meatballs & Martinis, which opened in August at 12 Canal St., feel both familiar and new.
If you're a fan of Italian-American food, you'll likely recognize everything on the menu: fried calamari, antipasta, gnocci, vodka sauce, alfredo, and chicken or veal parmigiana, marsala and Milanese. Even the specials - lasagna, pappardelle Bolognese, fettucini Fra Diavolo - are nothing new.
We all know these dishes. We've ordered them at restaurants. We've eaten them at weddings, office parties and potlucks, and we've made them ourselves, for our friends and family.
In Westerly, in all of Rhode Island really, Italian-American fare is as American as apple pie. But here's the thing. Although we've had this food a thousand times, it's usually not this good.
Chef owner Jerry Longo executes these classics with an authentic and loving hand. You could say he cooks like mama did, but mama - Liliana - is right there in the restaurant with him, shaking hands and delivering hugs, greeting some customers like family. And when the specials board lists Mama's Lasagna, it's not just a name. It's because she made it.
I tried her lasagna on our first visit. In this creamy, cheesy slab, the pasta was perfectly cooked, with just the right amount of flavorful sauce. It came with a choice of meatball or sweet Italian sausage, and on our waitress' recommendation, I chose the meatball. It knocked my socks off. Tender, full of the flavors of the meat, spices and garlic, it certainly was as good as my own mother's and it may have been better than my own.
I also ordered a side of rabe sautéed in olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper, a generous portion, perfectly cooked.
My husband sampled the pappardelle Bolognese that night and we shared the appetizer, Shrimp Sinatra, two jumbo shrimp in a white wine butter sauce, served atop crostini. The pappardelle was good, well cooked, and the Bolognese tasted like Sunday dinner to me, full of vegetables and tender beef and pork. The shrimp were snappy and fresh, but the crostini was soggy with the sauce, which was delicious, but I wished the bread were crunchy.
On our next visit, we shared the calamari as our appetizer. The squid rings and tentacles had been lightly fried then tossed with roasted red and green bell peppers and a pomodoro sauce and drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction and some julienned fresh basil. So good, a delightful variation.
For his entrée, my husband chose the Stuffed Veal Chop Saltimbocca from the specials board, and I went with the chicken parmigiana and a side of spinach sautéed in olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper.
The 10-ounce chop was divine, a meat-lover's nirvana. The mild veal was emboldened by the richness of the prosciutto generously stuffed inside. Garnished with mozzarella and served over a bed of spinach, it was tasty.
The chicken parmigiana was good - a large breast pounded flat and lightly battered and fried, then finished with a flavorful tomato sauce and served under a generous blanket of melted mozzarella. As with the rabe, the spinach was generous and delicious, a really wonderful menu option.
Now, about the martinis. My husband and I can personally vouch for the Longotini (Stoli Orange, Cointreau, and mango and cranberry juices), the Nicky Strega (Ruby Red Vodka, Cointreau and grapefruit juice), the Cornuto (Grey Goose Vodka, Chambord, pineapple juice and champagne) and the Canal Street (brandy, Grand Marnier and lemon juice, served with a sugared rim). By my count, there are 28 more on the menu, and I hope to try them all.
This charming old building, which once housed a muffler shop, seems perfect for this kind of bustling yet cozy eatery. The décor is slightly urban and clean, yet the place glows with warmth. Tables line the large front window, and a spacious vestibule keeps the cold wind out. The large bar, with a line of stylish, white-clad stools, takes up a good portion of the small room, but the place doesn't feel crowded.
Photos of Chef Longo with an array of celebrities - Jerry Seinfeld, Chaz Palminteri, James Woods (another Rhode Islander) - fill the walls, while a flat screen TV silently plays a Rat Pack movie. Two more above the bar seem dedicated to sports, again without sound.
If you live in the area, and you go to Trattoria Longo, you're going to see people you know. We ran into business acquaintances and family friends, and Academy-Award nominated actor Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor," "Six Feet Under"), who lives in Providence and no doubt frequented Longo's previous restaurant, Café Longo on Federal Hill, was having dinner with his family at the next table.
It's the kind of place where it might be easy to become a regular, and if you go often enough, you're going to be greeted like family.