Antica Trattoria chef honors his southern Italian roots
Early last summer, I pulled into Antica Trattoria on Bonita Beach Road in the middle of a rainstorm. The parking lot was deserted, the front door was open and the tables were unoccupied. Not good omens, obviously, but it was too late to turn around and find another restaurant to review.
So, we sat down and ordered glasses of wine. That’s when the server told us: They were closing for summer the next day. Chef-owner Antonio Scotto insisted on cooking for us anyway and encouraged us to return in the fall. I can’t remember what he served us from his diminished pantry, but it was good, wholesome Italian food and the hospitality and integrity mattered more than the specific dish.
I do remember the chef bemoaning the fact that most customers wanted the familiar, tried-and-true dishes — parmigiana, picatta, puttanesca — while he yearned to celebrate his culinary roots in the coastal Campania region of southwestern Italy. He vowed to represent the region when he came back after the summer hiatus.
True to his word, Mr. Scotto has a full complement of chef’s selections on his current menu. He pays homage to the rustic pleasures of braised rabbit (must be ordered two days in advance), sautéed beef tripe, beef braciola and grilled octopus with cannellini. The nine selections allow him to satisfy his soul while placating the predictable American palate with the rest of the menu. There are chicken and veal dishes prepared in seven variations, seven basic pasta dishes and a few baked ones, and a half-dozen seafood entrees.
The door once again was open when we arrived on a Friday night — a sign of welcome or is the air conditioning not functioning properly? The story inside this time was different. There were numerous parties eating and continuing to come in. Chef Scotto and another cook were busy in the open kitchen, and the staff appeared to be struggling a bit to keep up.
Located in a former fast food restaurant between U.S. 41 and the beach since 2015, Antica Trattoria has an open, casual feel with lots of natural light. Tables are well spaced apart in the ivory, black and burgundy dining area. The restaurant serves only beer and wine, and the selections could stand to be expanded. If you only want a glass of the grape, you have to settle for house wine. Our Pinot Noir was $8 a glass and just OK. Bottle options run a reasonable $22-$95 and favor Italians with just a few California products.
First to arrive were big yeasty rolls slick with butter and with just a hint of garlic – a nice change from the usual garlic knots or crusty bread.
From the short list of appetizers, we zeroed in on mussels Vesuvio ($8). The dozen glossy black shellfish all opened to reveal plump, tender mussels within. They were sautéed in a simple sauce of cherry tomatoes and garlic and served atop slices of toasted bread that soaked up some of the sweet sauce. With the name Vesuvio, I was expecting a pop of heat, perhaps from crushed red pepper, but that was not the case. Nevertheless, the sauce was a flavorful pairing for the shellfish.
The fried zucchini planks ($9) were very lightly battered, almost like tempura, and dusted with Parmesan. They were obviously hand cut, not out of a freezer like your typical chain restaurant. Tossed in for good measure were bite-sized potato croquettes that were crispy on the outside and creamy within. A thin tomato sauce was provided for dipping.
As regular readers know, we eat at a lot of Italian restaurants because they just keep proliferating. Mr. Scotto is making the effort to offer something beyond the usual Italian-American repertoire, so we decided to focus on his chef’s selections for our main course.
The Polipo al Tegamo ($24) features octopus, which seems to be enjoying a moment in the culinary spotlight after decades of indifference in America. Here it’s gently simmered in a fresh cherry-tomato sauce seasoned with a bit of garlic, wine and fresh basil. Slow cooking renders the leg meat incredibly tender and imbues it with mouthwatering tomato flavor. A generous portion is ladled over cavatelli pasta for a delicious and hearty entree.
Another chef’s selection, Granchio e Gamberi all Nerone ($26), showcased some of our local waters’ treasures. Hefty chunks of jumbo lump crabmeat and three grilled jumbo shrimp were tucked into a bed of “lentil polenta,” a smooth puree with a mild flavor that played a strong supporting role for the dish. The main attraction, of course, was the crab and perfectly grilled shell-on shrimp. The only fault with this entrée: dollops of pesto that had the bitter taste of old or jarred basil sauce. There was fresh basil on the premises — we saw the chef plucking leaves for garnish from a plant kept on the kitchen counter. Considering the care taken with the dish’s other ingredients, it’s hard to understand the misstep.
Mr. Scotto’s wife, Claudia Plaza, is the pastry chef behind such delights as a pear and dark chocolate tart, complete with buttery crust, and flaky, pastrycrème stuffed Napoleon ($7 each).
Go ahead and indulge. Antica Trattoria honors the traditions of the old country well. ¦