ECCO REMINDS ME that food is not all. It's the kind of restaurant I could leave without having an inclination to eat any particular dish again but look forward to returning to.
I like the look of the place. It is walled in brick and lined with booths. There are touches of the old, in the floor of small tiles, and there are touches of the new, in the boldly painted railings and the open kitchen in the rear. It looks fresh but not with a raw newness. And it feels friendly.
I like the mood of the place. The servers are young and lively and demonstrate an interest in pleasing. Their inexperience shows, however. One server describes a dish incorrectly. Another can't open a wine bottle. When extra plates are needed, the food cools while the server gets diverted by another task before bringing them. Be prepared to pour your own wine -- and maybe open it -- but to be treated in a most welcoming fashion.
Ecco has the kind of menu that offers up the trends of the day -- offbeat pizzas, pastas, grilled fish, grilled-meat salads -- in a rather limited range. But there is enough fresh and distinctive about them to tempt even the jaded. They all sound wonderful.
But they generally taste merely all right.
Ecco is primarily a pizza and pasta place. I'm told that its most popular dishes are pastas rather than pizzas, and I can understand why. The pasta itself is thin and delicate but supple -- impeccable pasta making, and careful pasta cooking. The pasta even outshines its sauces, which are either cream (with vegetables, or asparagus and prosciutto, or smoked salmon and scallions, or mussels with white wine), pesto (with scallops) or tomato (with mushrooms and sausage). They are all well conceived -- the pesto fresh and intense, the tomato chunky and lightly cooked, the cream thickly coating very good smoked salmon or vegetables. But the tomato tastes thin and the cream is so rich that it grows cloying as you make your way through the very large portion, and it coagulates as it quickly cools. I found the pesto the most successful, though I'd happily eat an appetizer portion of any.
The pizzas have continued to disappoint even as they improved from one visit to the next. The combinations are fetching: Canadian bacon, cheese and asparagus; fresh vegetables and cheese; grilled chicken with vegetables; seafoods with tomato or pesto; and the old standbys of sausage and pepperoni, of calzone and of white pizza. There are some shockers such as Cajun pizza, on occasion, and Canadian bacon with sauerkraut. The dough is also used for a heavy fried appetizer turnover filled with cheese but without much flavor, and rounds of it are fried into lighter and crunchier tart shells slathered with whipped cream and berries for dessert. In Ecco's early days the pizza crust tended to be crackery. Now it's lighter and better made, but it still doesn't add up to a sizzlingly good production. The dough needs more chewiness, though it has a nice crustiness. The tomato sauce lacks depth, and the toppings (except for the very peppery white pizza) have missed a pungency their descriptions -- sausage, pepperoni, even Cajun sausage or goat cheese and shiitake mushrooms -- would imply.
Some of the smaller menu items have more personality. Appetizers of mussels steamed with white wine, garlic and cream were plump and fresh and heady with those good perfumes. Grilled Shrimp Ecco were pleasant, wrapped in fresh basil leaves and Italian bacon, with a pesto dipping sauce. And grilled chicken or flank steak are delicious meats, served as main courses with bacon, cheeses and tomato sauce on the chicken or garlic butter on the beef. And they are savory garnishes for crisp greens and fleshy wild mushrooms and julienned peppers, nicely dressed as salads. Main dishes also include two or three kinds of fish, grilled and topped with garlic butter, but though they taste fresh and their cooking is carefully timed, three samples were all bland; you would have expected more flavor with the freshness and more crustiness with the grilling. They somehow just don't rise above the ordinary, though their accompanying vegetables are a fine fresh mix and the pasta with them is excellent.
So it is not the mainstays, but the small touches that endear at Ecco. Good vegetables, freshly brewed iced tea (and bread that looked good, but we never got any). The wine list, though small, is an intelligent selection and the prices are exceptional -- from $9 for frascati, pinot grigio or valpolicella to $17 from Domaine Chandon Brut Champagne, and some top-flight California chardonnays for under $20.
If I were evaluating Ecco as a pizza parlor I would applaud its high quality and wish for more daring in its flavors. As a cafe' it offers a range of light to heavy meals that bring it to mind for many occasions. Its prices are reasonable, and the amateurishness of its service detracts only marginally from Ecco's coming across as a very pleasant place to eat.