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Trento has a few stumbles as it delivers comforting Italian dishes in family-friendly environment

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
The cioppino dish at Trento features potatoes and zuchinni.

Alex Kahn and Andreas Exarhos faced an interesting challenge when they opened Trento in December 2011.     

The chefs had to square their experiences in refined kitchens such as David Bull’s Congress with the more family-centric Davenport area off Capital of Texas Highway. Given its location and clientele, the restaurant needed to serve as a casual spot where people could eat regularly and not a destination location reserved for “event dining.”

But just because the restaurant is housed in a former Chili’s doesn’t mean Trento is confined to cookie-cutter definitions of what casual dining can be. The two chefs have found a way to align their skills and passions with the desires of their customers, creating an accessible and affordable menu of comforting Italian dishes.

Servers welcome first-time guests at the spacious and relaxed restaurant with a brief rundown of the restaurant’s commitment to freshness, from-scratch-cooking and seasonal ingredients. Such terminology has become boilerplate for new restaurants, but there’s no denying the quality of the imported buffalo mozzarella in the caprese salad ($10). The generous portions of milky cheese barely held their form, spilling salty richness onto a plate dotted with halved little San Marzano tomatoes and draped with massive leaves of basil. The lush salad is a hallmark of the simple beauty of Italian preparation.

I have not had a better suppli – a breaded and fried croquette ball enclosing rice and cheese – since I moved from Rome a decade ago. A thick bronze crust with very little excess oil gives way to a perfect balance of firm rice and gooey and stringy provolone and mozzarella. The menu listed prosciutto as an ingredient. We didn’t find any in the four suppli ($8), but we didn’t miss it.

Lightly fried and sautéed Brussels sprouts ($6) had crisp, charred leaves, though the meaty center could have used another minute in the pan. Small bites of apple and liquefied pear mostarda countered the salt of pecorino and bacon. On another visit, a side of creamy mushroom risotto ($6) tasted of white wine and onions and little else. We could barely detect the shitakes.

Mint pesto colored a large bowl of PEI mussels ($12) that tasted as if they had simply been tossed in the sauce, keeping them from absorbing much of the white wine and pesto.

There are certainly many approaches to classic dishes, but Trento is the only place I have found large chunks of potatoes and zucchini in a cioppino. The tender salmon, plump shrimp and firm mussels were all cooked well, but I was confused by the extra components. Were they simply bowl filler? And a curious kiss of cream in the traditional tomato-based stew felt like a gift to customers wanting added richness.

That lip-service (hip-service?) to richness was evident in a ravioli ($16) stuffed with cheese and homemade lamb sausage. The flavor of the lamb got lost in the decadent sage and brown butter sauce, and the perfectly poached egg, like a ball of sunshine wadded in a delicate tissue, felt like overkill once it erupted into the heavy sauce.

The heaviness continued with a spaghetti alla carbonara ($12) that opts for guanciale (I prefer pancetta), the large cuts of fatty pork crispy around the edge. The creamy sauce had been unnecessarily thickened with a touch of flour, making for a thick, pasty sauce. The gnocchi ($15) also fell victim to their sauce, as an overly salty sauce overwhelmed the delicate potato pasta, lightly toasted after boiling.

Despite the trouble with some of the sauces, all of the homemade pastas impressed, but none as much as the rigatoni ($13) that arrived in a complex sauce of garlic and tomato full of fatty oils from tender veal, pork and chicken livers. As with all of the dishes we had, Trento delivered a lot of food for the price.

With rich meat and filling pasta dishes, you would be wise to stick to a light homemade gelato for dessert ($4 for two scoops). But, inspired by the excellent suppli, one evening we tried the pumpkin zeppoles ($7), crunchy fried doughnuts frosted with cinnamon sugar, a popular treat in Naples. The accompanying salted caramel gelato was more salt than caramel and had begun to melt by the time it reached the table.

Trento features an impressive wine list for a neighborhood restaurant – about 50 bottles from various regions in Italy, another 20 or so from the United States and about a dozen from the usual suspects. Our relatively green waiter had limited knowledge of the list, suggesting a couple of his favorites to us, but we settled on the slightly bitter cherry and almond pleasures of a Dolcetto d’Alba from Poderi Colla, which at $43 carried a strong mark-up from the $14 retail price. On a separate visit, we enjoyed a 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva from Nozzole ($55), that slowly opened up to reveal subtle notes of oak and tar. The bottle prices range from $28 to $155, with a couple dozen bottles in the $30s.

As with the wine, on both visits servers had a bit of trouble answering questions regarding ingredients and dishes, but they were willing to relay queries to the kitchen. And what they lacked in knowledge they more than made up for with attentiveness and enthusiasm.

That sense of friendliness translates to the bar area as well, where I saw a manager engaging in lively conversation with some regulars, greeting another with a hearty “paisan.” The experience can slip into gimmick territory, the bar (which doesn’t need its own name) is called Dante’s, and one bartender thanked a diner with a jaunty but awkward “grazi.” But those touches, along with a kids menu and Trento card that offers a free entrée after the purchase of eight (a nice but surprising bit of marketing), represent the restaurant’s earnest attempt to make itself a neighborhood staple, a place where families can dine and adults can sip wine in the expansive bar area.

Though some of the dishes feel like concessions to the expectations of Americanized Italian food, Trento does an admirable job of balancing the desire to deliver chef-driven food in a family-friendly atmosphere. It would be nice to see Kahn and Exarhos push the boundaries a little more and give their customers not just what they want, but what the chefs want them to try. But there’s probably a limit to how much of downtown you can bring to the suburbs.

Trento