"Red or white?" the server asked. My partner got the white, and I ordered the red. As I sipped the serviceable house Chianti, I considered that sometimes it's nice to be presented with such a simple choice. No fretting over the wine list, just a quick glass to help shunt off the workday.
There was something about Fratelli's that brought to mind the Italian restaurant scene from Lady and the Tramp. No, we weren't outside and we weren't sucking up long strings of spaghetti, but the Italian music and the quaintness of the restaurant were a bit romantic.
Unfortunately, the scene outside was less than romantic. Fratelli's is in an unattractive strip-mall location just off the feeder road of 290 and 34th Street. Getting there is a bit of a challenge. Construction has the feeder road torn up, and some of the entrance driveways are blocked off, but we made it through. It's a good thing the interior of Fratelli's is charming enough to make you forget about the bit of chaos outside.
We were invited there to try some dishes with Prosciutto de Parma that will be featured in May, along with a few other staples from the regular menu. Warm rosemary bread was a terrific starter along with the traditional dip of herbs and garlic in olive oil. Fratelli's version was very flavorful and, unlike at many restaurants, came with a spoon to help scoop up the herbs and spread them on the bread. Most of the time, you have to dip and scoop with your bread to go after the good stuff, but then you end up with an oil-saturated hunk that isn't enticing anymore. Truly, it's the little things that make the difference.
Not everything at Fratelli's was a high point. Bruschetta was bruschetta and nothing to write home about, although the good, fresh tomatoes were pleasing. A bland cheese tortellini soup made the point that just because something is made in-house doesn't always mean it's a winning dish. That said, Fratelli's is one of the few places that make their own fresh pasta for filled creations.
The Tagliatelle con Ragu Bolognese is interesting, and here is where the house-made pasta really shines. It's a comforting, meaty dish but the tagliatelle added some delicacy to it.
My hands-down favorite dish here was the homemade Minestrone Fratelli. It was rich and hearty, and I was so glad to see the hand-cut vegetables in it. Minestrone is usually so bland and disappointing that Fratelli's version was a breath of fresh air. I would have this every single time.
From the prosciutto menu, we tried the Saltimbocca alla Romana (veal cutlet and prosciutto wrapped around fontina cheese and baked) and the Scampi con Prosciutto alla Venezia (prosciutto wrapped around shrimp and baked, then placed on a salad). Of the two, the saltimbocca was much more pleasing, but probably should have been pulled from the oven just a few minutes sooner, as it was verging on dryness. The fried sage on top was a lovely and tasty adornment.
The prosciutto-wrapped shrimp was really good (it was a sucker bet that it would be), but the salad it was on top of was mostly arugula with some radicchio. Arugula is a very strong green and radicchio is bitter, so I didn't find the combination to be pleasing. This salad needs to be lightened up with an additional component that's not as harsh and could lend some cool crispness to the mix.
Fratelli's features a brick oven in the kitchen. It was designed by Chef Teresa Tadeo's husband, who is an engineer. Some very nice thin-crusted pizzas come out of that wood-burning oven. We tried one with pesto and chicken. The bottom could have been crispier, but the crackling, airy crust more than made up for that.
There's an interesting grrl power vibe to the staff that Chef Teresa has put together at Fratelli's. The servers and the dishwasher are men, but all of the cooking staff are women.
If I were in the neighborhood, I would not hesitate to go to Fratelli's, especially because there's a dearth of good restaurants in this area. In all fairness, I don't think it would be my destination if I were driving into town for top-notch Italian. My car would probably end up in the parking lot of Coppa or Crapitto's, depending on whether I was after modern or traditional.
Still, Fratelli's is a homey neighborhood restaurant. I'm glad to know it's there, and I don't think I would have if I had not been specifically invited. It's not very visible from the feeder road, and it doesn't have much media buzz going for it. I wouldn't mind going back. I'd have some warm rosemary bread, a bowl of minestrone and some bolognese, and I'd be happy to make that very simple choice between red or white.
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