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Trattoria Fresco
Restaurant Closed as of January 2, 2009 - 2012: Now Rose Mediterranean
435 Bloomfield Avenue
Caldwell, New Jersey
973-226-8800

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
11/22/2004

You enter Trattoria Fresco and come face to face with the sights, sounds, and irresistible aromas of a bustling open kitchen. Here are prepared the establishment's appetizers, salads, and brick-oven pizzas; entrées, on the other hand, find their way to table from the main kitchen located in the rear.

Immediately to your left is the host, casually decked out in baggy pants, computer at the ready; thus, having ascertained your name, he is instantly able to discern whether you have the graced the premises on previous occasions and greet you accordingly. These preliminaries out of the way, Mr. Baggy Pants once again consults his computer screen and sings out: "Table 25!" or "Table 11!" or... well, you get the idea... and promptly hands you over to Ms. Young & Nubile -- fetchingly garbed à la mode in tight fitting slacks and top, sporting a whisper of bare midriff -- who will lead you to your ultimate destination.

As you have undoubtedly surmised, things are pretty laid back here. Just how laid back you may subsequently discover, should you be seated anywhere in the vicinity of the host's podium, where servers slouch conspicuously throughout the evening, commiserating in stentorian snorts and gyrating gesticulations. On one occasion, members of the wait staff spent most of their spare moments quizzing a young trainee with regard to her menu proficiency: "What is carpaccio?" one would ask. "What is confit?" another would chime in. Making certain that a new recruit's knowledge is up to snuff is, indeed, commendable... But isn't this an exercise best conducted in private, not in the middle of the dinner rush where it is likely to disturb and distract patrons?

And there is a very real sense in which this breezy, easygoing attitude is somewhat at odds with the upscale ambiance -- two dining areas embellished with polished wood floors, gold-sponged and exposed brick walls, and a delightful patio for al fresco dining in warmer weather -- as well as the character of the cuisine itself. For while the moniker may read "trattoria," the food makes a noble, if somewhat ill-fated attempt at being prolifically pretentious. If Alfred Portale has come to be known as the progenitor of "tall food," then Messrs. Lustbader and Giacalone, the establishment's chef/owners, must surely be considered the devoted disciples of "compartmentalized cuisine."

Since tastings are big here -- pastas, pork, vegetables, and assorted other victuals -- a number of appetizers and entrées arrive on huge oblong ceramic plates, the various components divided into two or three portentous precincts. These offerings, it should be noted, are reminiscent of Bento, a lunch or dinner in the form of a Japanese-style take-away in which a box is divided into numerous small compartments. This presentational methodology is currently being imitated in some French, Italian, and even Chinese restaurants. Eye-catching, to be sure, but once severed from its uniquely stylistic Japanese nexus, also, at times, strangely self-defeating... For rather than integrating colors, tastes, and textures into a harmonious whole, a gastronomic gestalt, if you will, the constituents remain in splendid isolation, divorced from other complementary and/or contrasting elements that might add immeasurably to the overall quality of the presentation. Some items, of course, naturally lend themselves to this type of sybaritic segregation... others are simply overblown and overpriced. At Trattoria Fresco, you are treated to a bit of both.

The tasting of autumn root vegetables, which is served cold, is certainly one of the better efforts you're likely to encounter here. Dollops of acorn squash and butternut squash inhabit the end compartments of the triad, with a colorful mélange of sliced red and yellow beets holding forth in the center section. Pumpkin seeds and a sprinkling of estate-flavored oils add appropriate finishing touches. My only criticism is the tariff... Weighing in at a hefty ($12.00), this starter is, in my opinion, extremely overpriced.

Also thoroughly enjoyed was an appetizer of wood-fire roasted peppers ($9.00). The dynamic duo contained a ramekin of two mini roasted red peppers filled with rich jumbo lump crabmeat. Juxtaposed was a tangle of baby spinach salad tossed with a light lemon dressing and crowned with slivers of deep fried fennel. One of the simpler dishes you're likely to encounter here, but most effective. Unfortunately, it has since been replaced by a more complex (and expensive) version: one pepper filled with crabmeat, the other with Barolo braised veal ($12.00).

A main course of short ribs of beef ($22.00), however, clearly demonstrates the triumph of form over substance. There is absolutely no reason for the kitchen to indulge in pigeonholing here... except, of course, to distract the palate by dazzling the eye. But whether compartmentalized or coalesced, the individual constituents simply don't have that much to offer.

On the left... the Chianti-braised short ribs. Rather tasty and, as one reviewer remarked, "tender enough to cut with a fork." Trouble is, once these "fork-tender" strands invade your oral cavity, they tend to turn tough and chewy. On the right... a salad of roasted vegetables. Generic at best. And in the center ring... two supposedly crisp towers filled with whipped chive potatoes. Only the towers aren't crisp at all; they are downright soggy. And the bland spuds are an odious shade of green, evocative of a horror that might be served up by a practical joking, slightly inebriated leprechaun in the economy coach section of Air Lingus.

The tasting theme carries over to desserts as well. On one particular evening, a tasting of chocolate ($8.00), yet another culinary triptych: hot fudge glazed cake, crispy Godiva truffles, and chocolate diavolo gelato. Good, yes... but given the presentational pomp and circumstance, you expect a great deal more than is ultimately delivered.

And this is, unfortunately, a criticism that remains valid, not only for a number of the splashy segmented selections but for several of the establishment's other offerings as well: They simply do not, in my estimation, live up to the hype. Porcini-dusted pan-seared scallops ($21.00) sampled on my first visit were marred by grit (the bivalves, it should be noted, have since been teamed up with crab cakes ($23.00). The grilled halibut ($23.00) is one piscatorial pleasure that I feel should been cooked through and pristinely white at the core; the representative that arrives at table, however, is translucent and underdone. Even lasagna ($17.00), considered a no-brainer in even semi-competent Italian eateries, is served with a disappointingly dull ragù alla bolognese and buried beneath a shroud of gooey, nondescript mozzarella.

And yet... start things off with goat cheese/ricotta dumplings ($8.00) -- lightly fried and served with a luscious black olive and tomato ragù -- or grilled hearts of romaine ($8.00); move on to the grilled skirt steak with potato "manicotti" ($22.00), house-made pappardelle ($19.00), or one of the excellent thin crust pizzas ($10.00 - $12.00); and conclude with a homey apple marzipan crisp with dulce de leche gelato ($7.00) or warm butter crunch white chocolate bread pudding with cappuccino gelato ($7.00)... and you will surely feel the culinary muses smiling upon you.

And this is, without doubt, THE most infuriating aspect of a sojourn to Trattoria Fresco. Exercise a healthy degree of circumspection with regard to the establishment's bill of fare and you may dine exceedingly well here. Choose poorly and, as noted above, disappointment may be waiting in the wings. But why should a diner be forced to play gastronomic guessing games in order to come out on the winning end...? The answer is clearly that he/she should not.

There is absolutely no question that this popular two-year-old eatery has a great deal to recommend it. But to reach its full potential, it must spend infinitely more time courting consistency -- in both cuisine and service -- rather than romancing razzle-dazzle.

Cuisine: Innovative Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Street parking only
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

Web Site: www.trattoriafresco.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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