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B.A. Nilsson

A Masterpiece in Brick

Trattoria Rustica

26 McKay St., Pittsfield, Mass., (413) 499-1192. Serving dinner Wed-Mon 5-9. AE, D, MC, V..

Cuisine: antique Italian

Entrée price range: $12 (penne all’Arrabbiata) to $30 (rack of lamb)

Ambiance: elegant tavern

By B.A. Nilsson

The secret, says chef Davide Manzo, is in the brick oven from which most of his finished entrées are pulled. But you can tell that there’s more to it than that. Sure, the oven is impressive—as it should be, sitting in the middle of the restaurant, a structure that Manzo himself built, according to an Italian tradition that insists upon having a chef build his own trattoria oven. Manzo, who also has worked in construction, imported the bricks from Italy. The finished product glows throughout the night, and you’ll marvel at the way in which he glides the meats and fish into and out of the oven, the cooking times ticking in a clock in his head.

The kitchen is open for all to see; the dining areas of Trattoria Rustica are at different sides of it. Part of the magic of the place is to see each dish achieve its finish, often requiring a meticulous placement of ingredients. There’s not a lot of fancy garniture here: Manzo believes that the ingredients can speak for themselves.

Take the spigola ($29), a special the evening we visited. It’s a small sea bass, also called branzino, that Manzo orders from Greece. He stuffs it with garlic and Italian parsley, seasons it a little, and into the oven it goes. When it emerges, the skin is crisp (and quite edible), and the flesh is succulent, yielding a tremendous amount of flavor coaxed by the chef’s restrained additions.

“This is antichi sapori,” he explains. “The ancient flavors. I was born in Pompeii, which as you know had a most important civilization thousands of years ago. There are also recipes from the ancient Pompano, and I have studied these.” And pared them down to simple, straightforward presentations that are amazingly flavorful.

Another example was another one of the day’s appetizer specials: speck ($19), a cousin to prosciutto, is a ham cured by brining it with garlic and juniper berries, then cold-smoking it until it achieves dark, rich flavor, reminiscent of pancetta, but, of course, smoky. A generous array of silky thin slices shared a plate with fresh, sweet figs and a handful of large lupini, a bean prized for its ability to neutralize cholesterol.

Trattoria Rustica opened five years ago on a side street in Pittsfield’s downtown. But Manzo is no stranger to the business: Eleven years ago, he and his sister opened Trattoria “Il Vesuvio” down the road in Lenox.

Dinner is offered in a traditional Italian style, with a succession of antipasto, pasta, an entrée and salad if you choose to go the distance. Finish with a sweet and a cup of espresso, then top it off with biscotti and vin santo. And then toss down a shot of grappa.

With my wife staring at my waistline, I put up a mild resistance. Which is to say that I skipped the salad course. She took care of that, anyway, ordering insalata mista ($7) to start. What could have been a fairly ordinary compote of fresh greens (not that even that is so ordinary) was set off by a topping of crisp shaved fennel, and the merest touch of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Expect the obvious: Calamari is going to be calamari, but the $11 appetizer features long tubes of the stuff, grilled until tender, served with a lemon and parsley paste that fooled me into thinking it was pesto. Alongside is a green salad.

There’s no more glorious summer flavor combo than fresh tomato paired with a basil leaf; add freshly made mozzarella (Manzo makes it each morning) and you have caprese ($12), a beautiful way to awaken the palate.

The fine print at the bottom of the pasta page promises linguini aglio e olio ($10), which is a simple dish that adds oil and garlic to the noodles. Again, there’s something a little different here: The garlic pieces are crisped and sweetened from roasting.

Opt for the puttanesca ($15) and you’ll find large capers hiding within, along with the requisite array of olives and anchovies. It’s one of the best flavor combinations ever to grace a bowl of pasta, so good that you’d be crazy to insult it with cheese.

Not surprisingly, Manzo stuffs his own ravioli, a classic preparation with ricotta, simply served with a basil-enhanced tomato sauce ($16). If it sounds ordinary, believe me: The flavors are magic, helped tremendously by the look and feel of the room in which you’re dining.

Terracotta light fixtures hang overhead; a tile floor suggests the Mediterranean. Artwork and music are carefully selected. The servers know the menu and are happy to discuss it and to recommend items.

Antonio, who waited on us, has been with the restaurant since it started. He has that tip-enhancing talent of reacting to your order with a surprise that suggests no one more intelligent than you ever has chosen from this menu.

Although we dined late on a Saturday, with the room clearing around us and servers clearly ready to call it a night, Antonio presented my pork loin chop ($22) with a sense that I should take as long as I wished to finish. Likewise the rack of lamb ($30) that completed our ordering. Both emerged from the brick oven with a tender, juicy finish, the lamb seasoned with mint in addition to lemon and parsley, the pork coated with garlic and oregano. Alongside was a serving of sautéed Swiss chard, asparagus, and more lupini.

Desserts are displayed in a case by the bar; others, like the chocolate bombe (chocolate-coated chocolate and coconut ice cream) that my daughter insisted on ordering, emerge from the freezer. I contented myself with the biscotti-vin santo combo, savoring the sherry-like wine as a sense of complete happiness settled upon me. Fine dining at its best is a totally engaging experience, and that’s what Manzo has achieved here.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Chef André Begnaud, who served as executive sous chef at two of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, will cater the Ninth Annual Music Haven Community Gala celebration in Schenectady’s Central Park from 5:30 to 7:15 PM on Monday (Aug. 28). The menu includes smoked brisket, barbecued chicken, green beans with pecans, corn maque choux, Cajun/Creole potato salad, Louisiana slaw, and dessert beignets. The Gala marks the last concert of the summer series, which features zydeco master Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie on the Music Haven stage at 7:30 PM. The Gala’s $55 ticket includes VIP seating for the concert, the pre-show Louisiana bayou-style barbecue with dinner entertainment by the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers (Michael Eck & Greg Haymes), and post-concert café du monde dessert. The concert itself is free to the public as usual. For more information, visit www.music havenstage.org or call the Central Park office at 382-5152 or the Chamber of Schenectady County at 372-5656. . . . Chameleon on the Lake (251 Stafford Bridge Rd., Saratoga) is hosting a SPAC Food and Wine Fundraiser at 6:30 PM on Sept. 7 at the restaurant, which perches picturesquely on the northern inlet of Saratoga Lake. The event includes not only creative food and wine pairings but also Latin music and a complimentary dance lesson. The menu includes mushrooms stuffed with gorgonzola and sausage, paired with Sheldrake Chardonnay from Australia; coconut-crusted halibut with a Thai curry sauce, together with a Joseph Carr Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley; and coulat steak with a morel cherry sauce paired with Joseph Carr 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. The price is $110 per person, inclusive, and you can reserve a seat by phoning the restaurant at 581-3928. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail: food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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