1200 Old Freeport Road, Aspinwall. 412-781-2220
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 4:30-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4:30-11 p.m.
Prices: Soup, salads and antipasti $5-13; entrees $12-19
Nancetta's is a pretty little restaurant in a plain brown wrapper. Nothing about its location in a humble, one-story building tucked between Freeport and Old Freeport Roads suggests the comeliness of its interior, whose open-hearth pizza oven, narrow-laid stone walls and copper tabletops bring texture and glow to its comfortable dining rooms. In nice weather, there's even a lovely little patio, its proximity to Freeport Road softened by a grassy embankment that serves as a kind of green wall, providing an intimate feeling of enclosure and protection.
After appreciating the surroundings, we turned to the menu, which is, of course, Italian. In fact, Nancetta's doesn't call itself a restaurant; it's a ristorante. The dishes on its menu, too, are listed in Italian, but closer examination of their English descriptions revealed more pedestrian fare than names like salsicca and polpette -- sausage and peppers and meatballs, respectively -- might portend. Regardless, we found some enticing choices, and ordered with abandon.
We started with calamari al limone, sautéed with lemon, capers and white wine. Although this classic grouping of ingredients sounds a lot like piccatta sauce, it was a perfect match for the calamari, delicately scenting them with its fresh citrusy, light briny notes. More and more restaurants are getting the knack of tender calamari these days, but Nancetta's was truly exceptional: toothsome without being tough, satisfyingly chewy without being rubbery.
The extraordinary calamari gave us high hopes for the scallops with sun-dried tomato pesto, grilled artichokes and lemon-cream sauce. But the kitchen's light touch with the calamari was lost on the scallops. They were utterly overcooked, without any of the sweetness or much of the tenderness of simply seared shellfish. The real shame of it is that the accompanying elements were superb: The lemon-cream sauce was both rich and tart, the grilled artichokes were wonderfully tender and flavorful, and the sun-dried tomatoes subtly upped the intensity of flavor.
Insalata Caesar with lightly grilled hearts of romaine was another mixed success. Instead of hearts, the kitchen delivered half of a full head of lettuce -- unshredded. We actually liked the grilled effect on the green leaves, but their elephant-ear size overwhelmed the plate and, even with a steak knife, presented a challenge to render into bite-size pieces. A bigger problem was the tiny, rock-hard croutons, which we soon began avoiding. The dressing was only an approximation of traditional Caesar, but the bright, tangy flavor was a treat nonetheless.
Beans and greens got both taste and texture right, with firm but mealy (in a good way) beans and peppery, just-wilted escarole in good proportion to one another. Jason actually found the dish a mite too salty, but we both agreed that a scant handful of diced sweet red pepper was a nice touch, brightening the dish both visually and on the palate.
Wedding soup was adequate, but pasta fagioli was very good. Pasta-and-bean soup comes in many, many guises; Nancetta's uses a fairly thick tomato broth with still-firm penne (clearly cognizant that in soup, pasta gets mushy all too fast), tender cannellini and a hearty portion of vegetables. The homey style belied the posh surroundings, but it was surely satisfying.
Our first entree, veal piccatta, consisted of three pieces of tender veal with a lemon-wine sauce slightly thickened by the floured cutlets. Like the beans and greens, it might have been a touch too salty, but it mostly worked. The meatballs, served with a simple, bright red marinara, were big and reasonably tender, but they lacked any distinctive flavor, and nothing was done to marry their meatiness to the sauce. It was fine as kid's food, but inadequate to a serious adult meal.
Meanwhile, things had taken a turn for the worse at the other end of the table, where a dining companion had ordered fettucine Alfredo with shrimp and Angelique was testing out the Bolognese. Our server had alerted us that the Bolognese uses shredded beef rather than ground; that sounded good to us, as we imagined tender meat braised into falling apart. Unaccountably, what was actually served was small chunks of meat that appeared to have been cut, not shredded, before cooking, and a sauce that was more cooked than the marinara. Like the meat, it was under-seasoned and utterly deficient in flavor.
The alfredo was, if anything, worse: pasty sauce paired with overcooked shrimp. How had the kitchen responsible for the delightful calamari, excellent beans and greens and mostly successful Caesar salad failed so utterly with its entrees? What began as a lovely evening with promising food ended as another night slogging home with leftovers we weren't even sure we wanted.
And yet ... oh, those calamari.