The very week that I received the elaborate press kit from Tre Porcellini (which means “three little pigs”), Barbarella mentioned the restaurant favorably in her column. Knowing her and David’s fine palates, I looked at the enticing menu and figured I’d better scamper over there before it was mobbed by hungry, huffing, puffing wolves. It seemed an apt place for Samurai Jim, Michelle, and I to hold a temporary farewell dinner for our friend “M.E.,” who’s heading off to a Baja fishing village for a year to work on a film she’s making.
The restaurant is on the previous site of Chris Walsh’s Bite but looks larger and holds 100 if you include the heated front patio. The decor features white plastic chairs and white tables, plus a few four-top booths with leather (or pleather) seats. I’m not sure whether to call the style Milanese moderno or Ikea pragmatico.
The chef, Roberto Gerbino, comes from Catania in Sicily and most recently cooked at several branches of Il Fornaio. His sophisticated menu blends Sicily with more northern regions — classics and some culinary clichés, most executed with personal twists, plus a few apparently original inventions. All the pasta, including the dried ones, are made in-house but the breads aren’t. By looks and taste, they probably come from nearby Bread & Cie.
The breadbasket holds a few slices of savory olive bread, along with two types of baguettes, accompanied by a pleasing bagna of chopped tomatoes in a mild vinaigrette. I like this much better than the usual lazy blend of undistinguished extra-virgin olive oil oversplashed with balsamic. It’s not only a sign of serious attention to the diner’s pleasure — this bagna also tastes good.
An appetizer of Polenta al Cinghiale not only delights the palate but wraps itself like a fuzzy blanket around the heart: it offers soft, creamy polenta topped by a rich tomato-tinged ragu of chopped wild boar, wild mushrooms, and sweet diced carrots with shaved parmigiano on top. One unshared order of this ($10.50) would easily make a singleton’s whole, blissful main course (unless that person was a real hog), not merely by its generous size but in the deep satisfaction it affords. You feel like you have seriously eaten — not scarfed down, chowed down, or gobbled up, but savored something wonderful.
The burrata — young mozzarella, its center still unset — didn’t seem all that young to me; it was nearly firm, but we enjoyed its fresh creamy flavor and its posse of thin-sliced red and yellow vine-ripened tomatoes bathed in balsamic reduction alongside a flare-up of arugula. When this little piggie went to market, he bought the best available: the chef had obviously shelled out for some serious tomatoes, as one has to do to get lovable love-apples in winter.
Salmone Affumicato, cold-smoked salmon served over arugula, was rather coarse in texture, saltier than most of its ilk, and sliced thickly, compared to the translucency of its packaged Nova, Norwegian, and Scottish cousins. The menu specifies that it’s served with dill crème fraîche. That didn’t arrive, and the salmon needed it for lightness and contrast.
The Frittura Mista (mixed fry) of calamari, shrimp, and artichoke included two slices of artichoke and a total of two small shrimp — all the rest were squid rings and tentacles — with a lively, tart, caper-strewn aioli for dipping. It’s good, it’s light, but for a fried dish, we much preferred the scintillating side dish of truffled polenta “fries.” Firm but buoyant polenta fingers are imbued with truffle oil (and perhaps some shavings, or maybe those were just bits of parsley darkening with the cooking). It’s almost as seductive as a cornmeal version of the great garbanzo-flour panisse served at Cavaillon. These come with the same sparky aioli as the fried squid.
A tempting house specialty appetizer we didn’t try was “Mac and Cheese” risotto with parmigiano, aged white cheddar, champagne, and truffle oil. Farther down the menu, among the pastas, there’s also a specialty risotto with strawberries, shrimps, champagne, and parmigiano. Another specialty we skipped was a lively sounding vegan couscous salad with veggies, raisins, and a lemon-mint vinaigrette.
The wine list is a barrel of fun for explorers, with most bottles under $40, covering numerous regions. We began with a delicious white Torrontés ($21) from Mendoza, the Napa of Argentina. For our entrée wine I should probably have ordered a red (e.g., the Nero d’Avola from Sicily) but I couldn’t resist the rare chance to try a Sicilian white, La Segreto Bianco ($26), with the aroma of cold water running over clean river stones — although in the end, the Torrontés (distant whiff of a fruit orchard) seemed a little tastier.
We split our entrées between two pastas and two protein dishes. One pasta, which was really both pasta and protein, nearly rivaled the wild boar polenta. Ravioli con l’Osso consists of house-made ravioli filled with braised osso buco meat (veal short ribs) in a red-wine reduction and mushroom sauce — with a great, big, juicy marrow bone alongside and a little fork to tease out the unctuous contents. For once, enough marrow for four of us to get a few bites each! Even without that, the ravioli were delizioso with the flavors of wine-braised tender meat. Our gracious waiter seemed delighted to create a separate doggie-box for the actual doggie in our foodie family, Jim’s glam blonde housemate, Ginger, the little piggy who stayed home.
In the potato gnocchi with Italian sausage, porcini, and marinara cream sauce, the sausage, made in Vernon, California, was acceptable but not as good as our own Pete’s Meats’ Sicilian sweet fennel sausage, which would have made a real difference. The gnocchi flopped heavily, and heavily is the word. When I come back, I’ll be most tempted by the house specialty of tagliolini neri, pasta dyed black with cuttlefish ink served with a seafood ragu, and carbonara made with guanciale, delicious smoked hog jaw meat.
This little piggy ate roast pork. The obvious signature main course is Trio Porcellini, a combination of slow-roasted pork shoulder, a pork chop milanese (breaded and fried), and glazed pork belly. None of us made room in our appetites to seriously address the milanese. (Does anybody actually like this? If so, why?) The shoulder was tasty and tender. The glazed belly was a small sweet rectangle of crisped fat (mainly). I remember some small potatoes on the side...nothing interesting; the shoulder makes the dish worth ordering, and the glazed belly offers a little nip of nutritional sin.