Heading  for success

Heading for success

Trattoria Neapolis gets an ‘A’ for ambition

By Erica Wayne 08/16/2012

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Pasadena has a lot of Italian restaurants but few really fine ones. Among the best are Celestino, Gale’s, Mi Piace and (especially for its regional dinner specials) Il Fornaio. 
 
For pizza aficionados, Settebello’s and The Luggage Room rank highly. And, a little more than a month ago, a new contender, Trattoria Neapolis, opened its doors on South Lake Avenue.
 
There’s no doubt Neapolis is dressed for success. The site, formerly Dickson (and later Podley-Dickson) Realtors, is richly clad in dark wood, with marble countertops, deep secluded booths, magnificent bar and a lovely atrium. Some of the décor, especially the mahogany, may pre-date the restaurant (the two-story Dickson office was truly posh), but no expense has been spared to transform the space into a rich and elegant eatery.
 
There’s a great emphasis on carefully selected alcohol. The back of the paper menu is completely devoted to cocktails, wine and beer — all impressive. There are lovely concoctions like Fico Pazzo, with fresh fig, gin, violet and elderflower liqueurs, thyme and lemon juice, and Vinaccia (gin, Aperol apertif, green chartreuse and orange bitters) for $11 each. Wines are domestic, mostly Californian, and Italian ($29-$50) and beers are artisanal, again from both California and Italy ($6-$15).
 
So far, the menu’s fairly small: five antipasti, five soups and salads, seven pizzas, six pastas, six entrees, six side dishes and five desserts. But the intricacy of the recipes and the sometimes surprising ingredients and pairings make a foodie’s heart go pit-a-pat with anticipation. 
 
Given that we had four foodies (well, three and my mate who, given the option, rarely ventures beyond spaghetti bolognese and a nice chianti), it took us a while to choose.
 
I’d checked some of the online remarks by folks who’d already eaten at Neapolis and, luckily, noticed several mentions of the wonderful house-made bread that isn’t brought to the table unless it’s requested (kind of a Catch 22 since, if you hadn’t heard, you wouldn’t know to order it and wouldn’t ever find out). Forewarned, we did ask and got wonderful warm rectangles of panfocaccia, the dough pre-seasoned with lots of olive oil and salt before baking. Don’t miss it!
 
We ordered a wild mushroom pizza (with mascarpone, smoked pork cheek and parmesan — $15); wood-grilled baby octopus on a base of crisp potato wafflettes, with cerignola olives and sweet tomato oil ($9); and roasted red and gold beets, with  saba (grape syrup), grilled radicchio and goat’s milk ricotta ($12) as starters. The pizza was delicious with a nice woodsy flavor, but don’t expect the true Neapolitan charred and puffed crust. The octopus and beet salad were also pleasing, but divvying smallish portions didn’t allow for a full savoring of all the ingredients.
 
Eschewing meats ($28-$36) as too heavy, since the outside temperature was close to 100 degrees, we opted for pastas: summer risotto with tomato, shrimp, roasted eggplant, burrata and a grilled prawn ($24); lasagna with wood-grilled summer veggies, ricotta and mascarpone ($15); hand-cut linguine with Manila clams, pancetta, jalapeno, garlic and white wine ($21); rigatone bolognese (natch!), made from short ribs and pancetta ($19); and two side dishes (both $6): oven-roasted fennel with fresh orange vinaigrette and roasted pistachios; and grilled broccolini with garlic, Calabrian chili and lemon vinaigrette. 
 
We had fun dissecting, sharing, grading and devouring our entrees. The coral risotto with its buried crustaceans earned an A; the simple lasagna an A-; the linguine a B, since the pasta was overly thick and teensy emerald jalapeno slivers are pretty but don’t have the punch of traditional dried chili flakes. Alas, the bolognese was made with shredded beef and a slightly acetic sauce which my husband hated and, therefore, got a D.
 
As our plates were being removed, we remembered we hadn’t gotten the fennel and broccoli and called over a server to cancel the order. About a minute later, both side dishes arrived. Our waiter was perfectly willing to take the charge off our bill, but left the platters for us to sample. We’re glad he did, since they were among the highlights of our dinner.
 
There were a couple of other glitches. Our booth was under the second-floor dining area, and the sound of scraping chairs from above was somewhat obtrusive. Our water glasses were filled from a pitcher which turned out to contain Sprite. The replacements were fine; but later in the meal, the refills were again soda pop. The only possible explanation was a children’s party that was taking place just behind us. 
 
These toddlers (and babes-in-arms at other booths nearby) were crowing, screaming and acting, well, like children. We’re curmudgeons who, when we spend close to $150 for dinner, want children not heard and, preferably, not even seen. It was probably our fault for dining at 6 p.m., and maybe a sign that the economy is finally coming back.
I’d love to write about the Greek yogurt/honey panna cotta with apricot granita, basil gelatino and candied hazelnuts; or the warm chocolate pudding cake with summer cherry curd, crema fresca gelato and fresh cherries (both $9), but I can’t. Although we’d asked our waiter specifically at the beginning of the meal to save a portion of panna cotta for us, he presented our bill and disappeared without asking if we’d like coffee or dessert. Dang!
 
Trattoria Neapolis is truly in its infancy, so I’m sure most of the service bugs will be “exterminated” in short order and the creativity of the food and beverage lists will take primacy. Meanwhile, we’re planning to try it again when it opens for lunch toward the end of this month. And, if we do come back for dinner, we will remember to book our table for adult dining hours. 
 
Trattoria Neapolis
336 S. Lake Ave., 
Pasadena
(626) 792-3000
trattorianeapolis.com
Full bar/Major cards

 

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