By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, June 24, 2004
In Italy, a trattoria is a casual, family-run neighborhood restaurant offering home-style cooking, generally at inexpensive prices.
Trattoria Alberto in Glen Burnie meets the first part of that definition. It was opened in 1985 by owner and chef Alberto Contestabile, a native of Elba, the Italian island where Napoleon was exiled. It's casual in a dressy kind of way.
Despite its location in a strip mall on Crain Highway, within sight of the Route 100 overpass, Trattoria Alberto is quietly elegant, with ceiling-to-floor draperies that keep out the traffic noise, pale yellow walls, impressionist-style paintings and comfortable upholstered chairs.
The cooking at Trattoria Alberto is far too sophisticated to be called home style, however, and the menu is too extensive for that -- and pricey. The wine list includes a good sampling of some of Italy's best wines, most of them very expensive, plus a selection of more moderately priced bottles, but there are only a few wines by the glass.
Dining at Trattoria Alberto is like being swept away to Italy. It's not just the opera music playing in the background or the Adriatic-touched accents and professional polish of the wait staff. It's the whole experience, not the least of which is the food.
Missing are Italian cliches, such as fried calamari, which seems to be on every menu these days. Preparations tend to be what one might find at a ristorante (the most elegant type of Italian dining establishment) in Venice or Verona. At Trattoria Alberto the calamari are grilled, simply and lightly, then anointed with a splash of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. That way the sweet and tender calamari claim their rightful place as the center of attention.
The minestrone, too, transcends the ordinary, with its gently cooked fresh vegetables bound together by a rich broth.
The daily specials, as many as a dozen, are the grace notes that give the restaurant its authentic flair. Bresaola (air-dried Italian beef) shows up on many menus these days, including Trattoria Alberto's, but paper-thin slices of smoked duck prosciutto are much more unusual. Trattoria Alberto pairs them with a creamy goat cheese and a tiny mound of mache.
Beef carpaccio, thin slices of raw beef, a dish created at Harry's Bar in Venice and named for the painter, seems to be everywhere, not just in Italian restaurants. But at Trattoria Alberto, carpaccio (another special) features thin slices of seared tuna.
A word of warning: The specials and items designated "market price" are apt to be far more expensive than the items on the regular menu -- $42.95 for a huge veal chop, for instance. Those tend to be the more authentic offerings, and the ingredients often carry hefty prices. But the waiters don't announce the prices when they reel off the mouthwatering descriptions.
On the other hand, you can order half-portions of any pasta for a little more than half the price of a full portion. A half-order of penne al granchio, tubular pasta with crab, filled a shallow bowl, the creamy tomato sauce speckled with lumps of crab. We could have been dining by the Grand Canal in Venice. The linguine alla vongole was a tangle of perfectly cooked thin, flat noodles in a rich white wine sauce with tiny baby clams.
The spinach and ricotta stuffing for ravioli was light and fluffy, encased in pasta that melted in the mouth. It was topped with a simple cream sauce and a little freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Among main courses, the Dover sole was huge, even the fillets -- the whole fish was presented and then filleted table side. The lemon-caper-butter sauce was a perfect complement to the sweet-tasting fish. But the fish seemed a little tired by the time it was served; perhaps it had waited a few minutes in the kitchen. We had asked for a leisurely paced meal, but just seconds after we told the waiter we were ready for the main courses, they appeared -- too quickly.
On another visit, the size of the veal chop was overwhelming. Listed on the menu as 14 ounces, it appeared even larger, especially after it had been pounded flat and cooked Milanese style (breaded and panfried). We know it was flattened to order, because we could hear the pounding coming from the kitchen.
Another special, calf's liver, allegedly served Venetian style, was tender and savory in its rich wine sauce but presented as a paillard rather than the thinly shaved slices one could get in Venice. Strangely, the liver -- and the other main dishes we tried -- was served with mashed potatoes, a preparation that is decidedly un-Italian.
The only desserts prepared in-house are the rich and creamy tiramisu and fresh berries. Others are imported directly from Italy and might include a lemon tart and a dense chocolate cake.
The sorbets are my favorite -- served in the same fruit as the sorbet flavor. For example, the intensely flavored peach sorbet comes in a perfect frozen peach. Try the tangerine; the aroma and taste are intoxicating.