We feel somewhat torn about this charming new restaurant just south of King Street.
So many good things: the small dining room is pretty and fresh, with long-stemmed roses and the battered plank floors of an old town house; the waiters are good-humored and helpful; the chef, if you're lucky, will sing an aria or two (he's a tenor); and at its best, the food is quite good -- uncluttered and simple.
But then we start to have some second thoughts: Was the dinner really worth $60? Shouldn't the portions have been a bit bigger or the sauces a bit better? We haven't had anything bad here, so why are we leaving the Trattoria a little unsatisfied? We guess Trattoria's problem is that the food isn't yet as good as the atmosphere and prices -- and menu descriptions -- suggest it will be.
The menu is pretty conventional -- seafoods in marinara sauce, for instance, linguini with clams or tortellini with cream, veal with mushrooms or alla Parmigiana. We've been disappointed with the appetizers -- the mozzarella "fried with garlic and parsley" isn't greasy, mercifully, but the crust has been ordinary and we can't taste any garlic. Calamari salad has been okay -- the squid's nicely cooked, tender -- but the "lemon sauce" hasn't had much zip.
The best way to start the meal is with a terrific Caesar salad for two -- ahh, now here's a dish with garlic -- and with a couple half-orders of pasta. Two of the best are Penne Amatriciana, ribbed macaroni noodles with a sparse tomato sauce with bacon, and -- we like bacon -- Linguini Carbonara tossed with bacon and egg. Some restaurants make this dish so rich you can hardly get through it, but Trattoria's version is nicely restrained.
All the main courses we've tried have been pleasant. The chef uses good veal, he cooks the scallops and fish with care (although the fish filets have been awfully thin), and he adorns them with sauces, but doesn't smother them. If you ate only one dish at a time, never tried anything else, you wouldn't have much complaint.
But the more dishes you try on the menu or the more dishes you share with friends, the more you sense the limits here; few of the dishes really taste distinctive. When we read the descriptions on the menu our mouths water, there are so many unique-sounding tastes -- yum, should we have scallops with "parsley sauce" or veal with "garlic and basil" or fish with snappy capers or veal with "lemon parsley sauce?" Maybe we've caught the chef in some unusually subdued moods, but we've scarcely tasted the parsley or garlic or lemon or even the bacon where the menu's promised it (we even asked for extra garlic and still could barely detect it). The one exception has been that Caesar salad, shouting with garlic. We wish he'd make other dishes just a bit more like it. And he should either serve a good vegetable with the main course or forget it; three string beans and a bedraggled shred of lettuce look awfully lonely, just sitting there on the side of the plate.
Still, Trattoria da Franco is so charming and the waiters are so friendly (they'll let you order one course at a time if you like, no pushing or rushing here) that we'd make it a regular hangout if we lived closer -- not for a full-blown meal but for a light supper. We'd order a Caesar salad for two plus a couple half-orders of pastas, such as the Amatriciana; we'd order good Italian champagne by the glass (a bargain at $2.95); that plus a few baskets of great bread would make a fine meal for less than 30 bucks. And we're looking forward to trying the Pre-Theater Dinner menu -- soup or salad, a main course, dessert, espresso and a glass of wine for only $13 per person. Sounds like a god deal.