Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Charisma Cucina Italiana
Drawn in by the offer of half-priced wine for happy hour (until 6 every day), I visited Charisma for dinner and I ended up having a remarkably good meal.
The little trattoria has a few seats on the patio, and not that many more inside. The small space has been decorated with a sincere commitment to the color red, but the overall effect is actually quite charming since the big windows let in a lot of light and the house doesn't keep the lighting too low after dark either.
Service proved to be quite professional during my entire meal. It was attentive and courteous without any false friendliness and the staff seemed very comfortable in the little dining room, as though finely orchestrated.
Perhaps the main gaff in service was that the menu had been pinned to an old piece of cardboard. While this may have been intended to be charming, it irritated me slightly as it ended up feeling cheap instead of rustic.
The food at Charisma was quite good. Dishes showed that there's a lot of attention to detail being paid in the kitchen. Even the complimentary bread basket (a practice that's fallen out of favor in recent years) came with a lovely mixture of lentils, roasted garlic, and olive oil.
A meat and cheese board ($13.50) was generous enough to feed two people as a first course and a bowl of artichoke and potato soup ($6.50) was attractively garnished with fried onions and herbs. The soup was a bit less robust than I had expected, but I was ultimately thankful for its clean simplicity when I ended up ordering a rich main dish. Had it been my only sustenance, however, I might have been left wanting.
For a main dish, I ordered the paccheri "Charisma," the house dish that consists of tubular pasta, sausage, green peas, and a rich cream sauce. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente and the entire dish was a delight to eat. True, it was very rich, but it hadn't been overly salted and the cook had shown restraint on saucing the dish. Had it been swimming in a sea of cream, it would have been too much, but the whole dish was really spot on.
All of Charisma's pasta dishes are priced in the $12-$16 range and the portion size was generous. Also available, a list of Secondi (main dishes other than pasta) included everything from an eggplant parmigiana ($13.50) to a massive griglia mista ("mixed grill") that featured rib-eye steak, lamb chops, chicken, and sausage.
Charisma really delivered a great meal, in a pleasant location, with pleasant service, and at a reasonable price for the quality of the experience.
Charisma Cucina Italiana
142 University Avenue