Open Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations.
Prices: At lunch, pastas $4, main courses $4 to $5; at dinner, pastas $4 to $5, main courses $5.25 to $8.
LET'S start today with a lesson in the appreciation of the small restaurant. First, understand that there are some things a small restaurant can't do well (of course, many try anyway). It cannot handle an extensive menu without considerable waste or precooking. It has very little leeway in reservations; an extra couple brought in for a reserved table cannot simply be squeezed in as they might at a large restaurant. The waiting room is apt to be minimal. Even a full complement of coasts or umbrellas can strain a small restaurant's capacity. A single employe being absent can throw the whole operation into disarray, and any extra strain in the kitchen can make a significant impact in the pace of every table's dinners.
On the other hand, a small restaurant has the opportunity to be congenial and personal. Its kitchen can tune into small shifts in the availability of fresh vegetables or game for daily specials, and serve things that don't lend themselves to cooking in great quantities. And every dish can get close attention from the top.
Let's take for example Trattu, a new Italian restaurant that is even tinier than it looks, because its back wall is mirrored. Down a few steps, one enters at the long tiled bar. Brick walls, globe lights, plants here and there, it is decorated -- thankfully, underdecorated -- in a pretty, contemporary mode, reaffirming that small is beautiful.
You are seated, perhaps on a rust suedecloth banquette, at a table close enough to reach your fork over to sample your neighbor's pasta. A problem? Yes. On the other hand, people do taste each other's pasta, or at least ask each other what to order. Trattu is a restaurant for intimacy -- with the next table. It is noisy, with the sound bouncing from brick to brick. But you will never feel lonely there. And eve if the waiter is having to tell you that the kitchen is behind, and your main dish will be delayed, he is also continuously looking after your welfare. For a while, Trattu had trouble getting organized, and courses came in fits and starts. One day a busboy cleared our silverware and bread after our appetizer. But it has been better coordinated since, and even if the maitre d'hotel forgets to give you your menu, he will remember your face the second or third time you come, and welcome you as if you are the cornerstone of the business.
But the business is food. And Trattu has learned well the lessons of running a small restaurant. The menu is limited, as it should be to maximize its abilities. But it exercises imagination in the choices so that even with only seven entree possibilities at lunch, the decision is difficult. No space is wasted by offering the standard fettucine all' Alfredo or veal with marsala. At Trattu the pastas -- homemade and well-made -- are agnolotti in cream sauce, fine spinach and egg noodles in cream or tomato sauce, cannelloni, bucatini with bacon and tomato sauce, and linguine with clam sauce or -- my favorite -- with cream and red caviar. At lunch, tortellini are also served with light, subtle tomato sauce. The agnolotti seem to be the staff's favorite, and the well-seasoned spinach puffs are indeed excellent. But linguine coated in cream and simply seasoned with tiny salty contrasts of coral salmon eggs is an inspiration one doesn't encounter every day. Pastas cost $4 to $5 at dinner, $4 at lunch. The prices, too, are refreshing for such grand homemade pastas, which might cost $2 or $3 more elsewhere downtown. My only complaint about the pastas is that one cannot order a half-portion as an appetizer, so you have to arm-wrestle your dinner partner to decide whether you both share the cannelloni or the paglia e fieno.
Dining in Italian restaurants is a problem for people with low resistance to menu description. There are the appetizers and the soups and the pastas and the main courses and no possibility of getting to every course. A few stabs at the antipasti at Trattu found fried mozzarella served as a deep fried round with a couple of anchovies, missing the fabulous excess of a butter bath. Artichoke bottoms with pate sounded more intricate than the actuality of canned bottoms with thin squares of pate perched on top. And the fresh artichokes steamed in olive oil and garlic had just run out the several times I ordered them.
Soups I never got to. Salads, though the orange and olive combination intrigued me, were abandoned after a spinach salad showed up with shriveled mushrooms and the dressing poured over rather than tossed; at $2.50 or $3, they must do better.
Little is slighted among the main courses. Veal is sauteed with prosciutto and wine or with lemon; it is stewed in tomato sauce at lunch or its shanks braised at dinner. It reaches its glory, however, as Vitello Trattu, the milky white scallopine just firm enough not to melt under a fork, accented with roasted red peppers and mushrooms in a translucent beige wine sauce. It is deceptively simple, for the art in this is the peppers contrasting with rather than overwhelming the veal. It works. Vitello tonnato is the one dish I found that does not work. The veal itself is flawless. But the tuna-caper-anchovy mayonnaise that sauces this cold veal tastes like no more than mayonnaise with tuna stirred in, so the tuna flavor swamps the dish rather than keeping its identity mysterious. Also, the cold dish is served with hot vegetables -- the excellent firmly sauteed zucchini with tomatoes and the potatoes sauteed with rosemary that come with all the main courses -- and the proximity works to the detriment of both the cold meat and hot vegetables. Trattu also lists several breast of chicken preparations, steak in wine and cognac at dinner and sausages with tomato sauce at lunch. The fish list is limited to filet of sole with lemon at lunch, but expands at dinner to include the more intriguing trout with almond sauce, sea bass with fennel and shrimp with garlic and wine. But one special dish at lunch and dinner is lamb roasted with garlic and rosemary, a robust combination cut into robust chunks. Don't expect delicate rosy rare lamb. This is apt to be cooked through and crusty, but it is very good. With all comes notably good bread and the possibility of an appropriate reasonable wine. The short list is exclusively Italian, and for $6 or $7 you can find half a dozen white wines or two chianti classicos and more. The house wines are Biscardo, at $5 a liter.
Prices at dinner are modest for the quality, style and location of Trattu. One would seldom spend over $15, certainly not over $20, for a meal of distinction. Lunch, by contrast, is priced only a dollar or so lower per main dish, in a city where lunch is usually considerably cheaper than dinner. It seems less of a bargain.
All ends well at Trattu with espresso or cappuccino, both strong and hot. Dessert is usually a zuppa inglese that is alcoholic and custardy but intensely sweet, or a cannole with a shell of outstanding fragility and a barely sweet filling that could use a little thinning but is still a relief from most cloying cannoles.
You also end with hearty nods and urgings to return by the staff and your new friends at the next table.