[Sidebar] September 30 - October 7, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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A formidable newcomer

by Bill Rodriguez

359 Main St., Wakefield, 783-9944
Open Tues-Sat, 5-9:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

What, another Italian restaurant? They have been popping up around Rhode Island like mushrooms after the spring rain of the robust economic climate. But Trieste, which opened in Wakefield in April, is hardly just another entrant in the ongoing Al Forno wannabe competition. It has leapt onto the short list of places that could make a Northern Italian think he'd died and gone to Tuscany.

It calls itself a café and trattoria. You walk into a small place, dimly lit, with apple green walls and the occasional multi-colored ceramic bowl or vase bursting into view, like the similarly designed plates set before diners. Ivy dangles from sconces on the walls. Jazz piano tinkles in the background. They couldn't get a liquor license, so you have to bring your own. With your nice glass of wine you'll be served a basket of both French and Italian bread, along with herb-infused olive oil, sparked up with red pepper flakes. The oil stain problem is handled sensibly by giving you not a cruet but a small bowl and a tablespoon. The tables, paper-topped bistro style, are devoid of floral distraction, as though only the food matters.

Putting interesting spins on what could be ordinary seems to be a consistent effort here. Such as with the antipasti. The bruschetta ($8.95) is topped with jumbo shrimp, and the typical prosciutto on another offering is instead smoked venison. Perhaps the best demonstration is Trieste's calamari ($6.95). It is grilled rather than fried, and the whole tubular bodies are served, rather than cut into rings, sans tentacles, on a bed of spinach with hot cherry pepper slices. Grilling is a brave decision, since the squid is chewier than if fast-fried, though not objectionably so. The resulting smoky flavor given to the bland shellfish is quite wonderful. A drizzle of balsamic reduction is a thoughtful taste complement. Johnnie thought she'd recognized the grilled calamari from Raphael's, and we learned from our hostess, Anna Allsworth, that the chef, Gene Allsworth, had worked there for years. He has also headed the kitchen at the White Horse Tavern, in Newport.

Salads range from a mixed greens house salad ($4.95) with a top-shelf aged balsamic in the vinaigrette, to one with arugula and mandarin oranges ($6.95). There are eight or so each of the pastas and main dishes, including specials. Interesting choices hide in the menu, so peruse it carefully. You don't want to miss the pan-roasted quails in the cavatelli ($18.95), or the confit of rabbit ($24.95).

Hardly any Italian restaurant fails to offer a chicken and pasta dish as a simple, inexpensive choice and I had to see what Trieste would do with this. Their penne e pollo ($15.95) is made with chicken slow-roasted for succulence, rather than simply pan-fried. Pieces of chicken are tossed with wild mushrooms and oven-dried tomatoes to concentrate their flavor, in a butter sauce with roasted garlic. The effect is to pull out and maximize every taste in this symphonic little medley.

My dining mate had the torretta di melanzane ($15.95), a little tower of three thick grilled eggplant slices, which sandwich spinach, ricotta and mascarpone, Napoleon-style, over linguini. Tear-drop yellow and red tomatoes decorated the light tomato sauce pleasantly heavy on scallions. Johnnie liked it, except that it was too highly peppered for her, so I ended up trading plates for more than a sample. Having had lunch at Federal Reserve by that culinary troupe visiting from Florence, I'd planned on just tasting our entrées and taking the rest home. But the melding of flavors was compelling, so there wasn't much left when I pulled myself away.

We had to save room for Trieste's desserts. Having done so well with the meal and knowing that the "dolci" were all made there, we had to have two instead of just sharing one. We went for the two most popular, bowing to prior acclaim. The warm bread pudding ($6) was baked with large pieces of bread -- a tasty Tuscan boule -- and served under a heap of plump blueberries with a tangy crème anglaise. My choice, the tortino caldo di cioccolato ($7), was worth the wait while it was baked to order. The bittersweet chocolate cake had a melted chocolate center that spilled onto a splash of caramel sauce. I was impressed by the intensity of the taste -- which then clicked up a notch when a fat blackberry burst into flavor.

Speaking of reaching a higher level, if everyone around here who loves Italian restaurants visits this place, the already demanding culinary expectations in Rhode Island will get even more exacting. And why not? Every neighborhood deserves a Trieste.

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