Monday, May 10, 2010

Testaccio, a Roman trattoria in Long Island City, New York

Last night I went out to eat at Testaccio Ristorante, a Roman trattoria in Long Island City, New York which opened recently. It aims to be a local family restaurant that invites Italian families, hipsters, and neighborhood wanderers into its warm brick enclave.

I made a dinner reservation for 7:45 pm, but my dinner companion and I arrived early -- around 6:30 pm. Here, we can see the front bar where early arrivals can lounge for a pre-dinner cocktail to whet the appetite.

It's sunset in Queens. I'm standing at the bar trying to order a drink. With the sun setting, the view to the outside is dark and reminiscent of a Sunday afternoon.

We check in with the hostess and tell her we are early. She actually tells us that there is a table open so we relocate.

A view of the dining area; it's a long, narrow corridor that doubles as the diners' table area.

We're seated at a table in the main dining room. The clientele is mostly Italian families, dining out on a cool Sunday evening. Three generations of family seated at a single table are slurping pastas, drinking wine, and chattering busily. There are children as young as 12 or 13, grandparents in their 90s. Fortunately, no crying babies were present. Joyous elderly eyes flicker and dance as they look upon younger and more agile versions of themselves across the table.

There are throngs of busboys but seemingly a shortage of waiters. After a considerable wait, our waiter comes by and proffers a menu. The dinner menu is divided up into six sections: Antipasti, Zuppe, Insalate, Paste, Secondi, Pizze, with a separate menu for Dolce (desserts).

Ordering was troublesome. I requested the grilled lamb chops as an entree but was told that the kitchen might be out. I tell the waiter that I'll have the seared tuna instead.

After ordering, I turn and crane my head around to evaluate the decor and restaurant space. The far end of the dining area has a large wine storage refrigerator that triples not only as a decorative piece, but as a wall that separates the common dining area from the private upstairs seating.

I order a house margarita, which was made from tequila, orange, and lime. It was more orange than lime, which I found odd. It was also served in a Collins glass rather than a margarita glass.

Appetizers arrive. My dining companion ordered the "Stracciatella alla romana," a traditional egg drop soup with spinach & parmesan in a chicken broth ($8). He remarked that it was "a very simple dish" and near the end, complained that it was "very difficult to eat," due to the apparent difference between the size of the bowl and the size of the spoon.

My appetizer was a salad: "Insalata di fagioli giganti e porchetta," a warm butter beans salad with roasted porchetta & grilled vegetables ($11).

The porchetta was delicious and bountiful, and the vegetables and butter beans were cooked perfectly. Springtime encapsulated in a salad. I could have had this as a main course and been happy. The flavors mingled together and each component had its say in a salad that was cautiously teetering on too many ingredients. However, the Jenga tower did not topple, and I enjoyed the extensive variety of spring vegetables.

Even though the decor did its best to soothe its patrons, the waiters proved to undo the calming nature of the establishment. Our table's waiter proved to be awkward and overbearing, asking us how our appetizer was no less than three times. After serving the margarita, he ogled at me from a distance to see my reaction upon sipping it. I felt unnerved by his hawk-like watch. Our waiter also had the remarkable ability to end every exchange awkwardly, like a person you speak to on the telephone who does not know how to say goodbye.

Indeed, this was apparent when he came back to our table to inform me that the kitchen was actually out of tuna but still had the lamb I had previously requested. He hovered over the table as I perused the menu for another choice (I was no longer enamored with the lamb and wanted to review my options once more). Only when I requested for him to give me a minute did he walk away, watching like a perched gargoyle for any shifting of my weight or lifting of my eyebrows. It made me sweat.

I went back to my original choice, the lamb chops with grilled polenta, wiping my brow as if I had just defused a fifty-kiloton bomb by correctly choosing to cut the green wire. Phew.

After a long wait, our entrees arrived:

"Costolette d'abbacchio scottadito," grilled organic lamb chops with chicory & grilled polenta with lamb reduction ($25) was placed before me. I love lamb chops, but these were bland and unimaginative. They were cooked medium-rare, as I had requested, but upon cutting them, the juices spilled out all over my plate, and the meat became tough and flavorless.

I'm not a big fan of polenta, and it takes a superior rendition of it to make me smile at a bite of it. This did not accomplish that, so when it came time to clear the plates, a heaping stack of polenta remained on mine.

My dinner companion ordered a pasta, the "spaghetti alla carbonara," spaghetti with roasted guanciale in a egg's yolk sauce & ground fresh black pepper with parmigiano & pecorino cheese ($14). I only had a bite of it, but it was a delicious reproduction of a classic dish.

The creamy pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, slathered with the meltingly creamy pecorino and parmigiano. The roasted guanciale provided just the meat and fat a carnivore yearns for in a pasta dish like this. The egg's yolk sauce gave the dish depth and richness. Grated parmesan and freshly ground black pepper provided some contrast and zing to the other flavors.

For dessert, I had a glass of dessert wine and my companion had cannoli. When my dessert wine came, my waiter, with his usual expertise at making every situation awkward, stared at me as he waited for me to take a sip (even though my dinner companion did not receive his dessert yet). I took a sip and before I could even taste the alcohol, he blurted out, "How do you like it?"

I hate it when waiters put me on the spot and ask me that. I could do nothing else but force a weak smile.

When the cannoli arrived, my friend complained that the ice cream was too cold to cut through with his dessert spoon. When he put some force into it, half the cannoli shot out like a cannonball, landing on the floor. He picked up the dirtied cannoli piece from the floor and placed it gingerly on a side plate, to be discarded later.

When the waiter returned, he cleared the table, except for the piece of cannoli that had fallen on the ground, and said, "I'll leave that for you to finish." I grimaced, and my dinner companion appeared sick.

If you thought the service at Testaccio could not get any worse, it did. When the check finally arrived (twenty minutes after we requested it), we paid in $20 bills. The waiter came back and claimed that he could not make change for a twenty. We thought that to be a bizarre attempt at soliciting extra tips, and he offered to bring us change from the Chinese restaurant across the street. We reluctantly accepted, receiving our change another fifteen minutes later.

All in all, stick with the pastas and you shall be fine. Desserts seem overpriced and the service makes for a very awkward experience. Oh, and pay by card.

Testaccio Ristorante
47-30 Vernon Blvd, Long Island City, NY 11101

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