There is plenty to dote on in this snug 1938 cottage, from the vastly reassuring eau de tomato-and-garlic that perfumes its two front rooms to service so endearingly familial that first-time visitors start imagining they've been coming here for years. Taste Patrenella's gamberoni alla sorrentina or its homey rum cake and the deal is sealed: you will be coming here for years, whenever you need a dose of the simpler, sweeter world that obtained before slick marketing plans ruled restaurant land.
Patrenella's is nothing if not a world unto itself, perched on a handkerchief-sized lawn in a sleepy, Sixth Ward backwater that seems like a secret place. Oddball statuary lions welcome visitors to this arugula-free zone, along with a blackboard list of the day's specials that has been hauled right out to the curb. An unnervingly luxuriant vine crawls over an arbor on the tiny front porch, where a few semi-secluded tables meet fat velvety leaves and skinny three-foot-long squashes. Unnerving in their own right, from time to time these pale celadon objects are wrenched from their moorings and paraded through the miniature dining rooms on their way to the kitchen -- and their fate.
It all feels very cozy and convivial and unassuming. The food tastes much the same way. Eating here is like having the folks down the street cook for you -- which in Italy, after all, is what trattorias are all about. Proprietor Sammy Patrenella, whose parents built the house, beams shyly when he shows off the weird squashes (cuccuzzas, he calls them) that he planted "on St. Joseph's Day." His Sardinian chef, Andre Pintus, breezes forth to consult with patrons on their dinner. "I'll do whatever you want," he vows, and as proof he offers a description of the dish one customer requested: a pasta creation involving anchovies, cream, pine nuts and a meatball on top.
Fine for her. I'd rather have Pintus' gamberoni alla sorrentina -- thin, springy spaghetti with fat, springy shrimp, all bathed in a garlicky white-wine sauce that jumps with lemon. In a world full of disappointing pasta-and-shrimp dishes, this one comes through. So do Pintus' various tomato sauces, which have verve to spare. The basic edition spread over a simple bowl of spaghetti with fennel-seeded Italian sausage is good and garlicky. A version brightened and fluffed out with sharp, finely grated cheese is even better -- so much so that the gummy little potato gnocchi it covered on one day's special seemed far less objectionable than they would have in their naked state. Any excuse will do to eat that charismatic sauce -- including the toasty garlic bread that is flung about with such abandon here.
A stalwart marinara does much to atone for whatever slight rubberiness a school of fried squidlets may have acquired during their swim through a pan of hot fat. The calamari are the delicate, spidery kind, but the timing's off. No excuses are necessary, though, for penne boscaiola with meaty, woodsy-tasting mushrooms in a tomato sauce smoothed with cream. Such a dish can be boring and stultifyingly rich; this one is neither. A single person would be hard put to finish off an entire order of these luxuriously sauced quills, however, so it would be prudent for two or three diners to split one as a first course.
Pintus prides himself on his seafood, and his fish specials in particular can have an elemental appeal. A fillet of snapper, filmed in flour and pan-sauteed, actually tastes of the sea (remember real, pre-orange roughy fish?); a gilding of lemon and wine and garlic aids and abets without stealing the show. But why, oh why is this otherwise blameless fish reposing on a large leaf of lettuce? Maybe it's a Sardinian thing. But I hope not.
One night's fresh baby clams in a winy bath were a good idea -- but the fettuccine they sit on were not, their heft seeming to drag the shellfish down rather than buoying them up. Skinnier, sprightlier noodles would have been more apropos. And a more distinctive vinaigrette would help the house salads, which are unobjectionable but just sort of there.
Two curiosities demand trying here. Involtini of wafery fried eggplant pinwheeled around prosciutto and provolone cheese is like an Antone's poor boy that has kicked off its breadly bonds and gone to heaven. And the antipasto plate has designs on the third dimension. Off-the-menu cuccuzza squash melted down with olive oil and onion and garlic sounds good if you stop right there. So why does Patrenella's then give it a tomato sauce fleshed out with crumbles of beef and sausage? Because it brings these odd, vaguely zucchini-like vegetable specimens into the realm of the familiar, that's why. Sammy Patrenella says that cuccuzza in this light but meaty sauce tastes great on spaghetti, and I believe him. While squash hang on the vine, ask and ye shall receive.
The restaurant does a refreshing dessert of strawberries macerated in lemon, orange and white wine -- but the berries can grow mushy if they macerate beyond the point of diminishing returns. I'd rather argue over whether the stoutly rum-laced bundt cake beats the suaver amaretto version, or whether the antler-and-ribbon-bedecked garland that twines over an arched doorway, twisted with little white lights, is really a Christmas decoration that someone liked too much to take down.
It looks just right in these simple, charming rooms. "You could bring a date here," observed a colleague of mine on whom such considerations weigh heavily. He's right, but it is well to remember that Patrenella's only serves dinner Thursday through Saturday. At lunch Monday through Friday, you can bring a sharp ear to eavesdrop on the conversations of the courthouse crowd that fills the chummily spaced tables, drawn by the comforts of a womb that seems a million miles from downtown -- even through it's just a couple minutes' drive down Washington, then south on Jackson Hill between Waugh and Shepherd.
Let's see: there's County Clerk Beverly Kaufman eating spaghetti, and there, holding court at a big table, is Justice of the Peace David Patronella, who may be Sammy's cousin several times removed, or maybe not. No matter; he still feels like family here. And so does everybody else.
Patrenella's Cafe, 813 Jackson Hill, 863-8223.
gamberoni alla sorrentina, $12.95;
spaghetti with sausage, $6.75; rum cake, $2.50.