Tre Trattoria is Jason Dady’s most overtly Italianate restaurant to date; everything on the menu at least sounds as though it might be served somewhere, sometime, in Italy. This doesn’t mean that one of the city’s most creative young chefs and entrepreneurs is going Old World on us. Far from it. His grilled, marinated caponata has an upstart attitude that says outta my way, I’m in a hurry; his salsa verde bears scant resemblance to the classic Italian sauce for boiled meat or fish.
When it comes to caponata, I’m all for an approach that lets the eggplant, onion, olives, and other ingredients get to know one another slowly but surely, and frying the eggplant, as is traditionally done, gives it a texture that’s makes it more of the marrying kind. In Italy, the salsa verde can vary from a pounded paste to a sauce of chopped ingredients — parsley, bread, and hard-boiled egg among them — blended with olive oil and left to sit long enough for flavors to blend. Tre Trattoria’s rendition has spent no time hanging around, yet in this case I find the update refreshing — especially when served in copious quantities over impeccably cooked asparagus.
The caponata and asparagus can be found under Dady’s verdure section, and at one time or another I think I’ve had all of the listed items. The roasted golden beets with orange segments are a favorite when the beets have been roasted enough. The cannelini beans with gremolata (parsley, garlic, and lemon zest, usually served with osso buco) can suffer the same fate as the caponata, but I keep ordering them anyway. The Tuscan faro salad was great the last time around, but the fingerling potatoes were simply trying way too hard, with orange, pancetta (or a kissin’ cousin), pine nuts, red onion … all that’s really necessary here is a little olive oil and good salt, IMHO. An order of grilled radicchio also came a little over-adorned with walnut halves when a sweeter dressing might have balanced the slightly bitter lettuce just a little better. Broiled smelt were an appetizer recently, however, and they were sensationally simple in the real Italian sense of ingredients first.
Dady’s salumi do not employ quick-fix techniques as best I can determine; the prosciutto di Parma, the Genoa salami, and others are the real thing, and make for great wine-and-antipasti noshing after work, late at night, or after an opening (Billy Hassel at Parchman Stremmel Gallery in this case). Tre’s house-cured pastrami, on the other hand, is a different sort of “real thing.” It would never pass muster in Manhattan’s citadels of deli-dom, but it has its own Texas-based charm. The problem for deli denizens would be the smoking: It’s much too aggressive, smacking of mesquite or something equally pungent. But I liked it.
For a single diner — and this happens to me more often than I would like to admit — making a meal of the appetizers and meats is one of only a few options at Tre, whose menu is geared to couple and family portions. The other default for solo diners, besides making a meal of appetizers, is pasta and pizza. Not that I’m complaining. (Well, just a little.) The gnocchi with gorgonzola, for example, are superlative in every sense. And the linguini and clams redefine the way-too-tired genre. The pasta is homemade and silky-smooth, and the clams are fresh, briny, and just a tad tingly with both chili and black pepper.
Pizzas are far from being fall-back as well. A cast-iron griddled pie with goat cheese, pistachios, and balsamic-glazed onions was a paragon of carefully considered tastes and textures atop a crisp and bubbly charred crust. Don’t attempt to compare this to a standard pizza from any of your usual sources; just try it on its own terms.
Now it’s true that Tre occupies a star-crossed (some might say cursed) location in the Boardwalk on Broadway just south of Hildebrand. Many restaurants have come and gone in the space that has been minimally redone on top of earlier changes wrought by Cibal, its previous tenant, so the ghost of occupants past was cause for some concern. And it’s also true that I was at first unconvinced by “la famiglia cucina” emphasis. But the space seems to be working, and families do appear to be taking advantage. Besides, there’s no way anybody could resist the slow-braised short ribs. Knee-jerk as short ribs are on menus these days, it’s hard to think of them in Italian terms (yes, there may be some porcini mushrooms), but who cares.
I have missed the slow-braised wild-boar ragu, since it’s available only on Tuesdays (and for four people), but I have enjoyed the pappardelle and salsa Bolognese; there’s just enough sauce in the true, Italian tradition. But from the La Famiglia section I have marveled, shortly after Tre’s opening, at the Tuscan-marinated ribeye and was more than pleasantly surprised by the grilled swordfish with capers and tomato confit. Swordfish isn’t a dish I want to consume often due to its delicate sustainability situation, but if we must sin, this is the place to do it. Virtue reigns with most of the contorni, however. We have been somewhat unhappy with the Tuscan braised kale (cavolo nero being a special favorite), but more than pleased with a special of roasted cauliflower with garlic.
Now it’s rumored, the calumny perhaps spread by qualchi romani magri, that Italians aren’t big on elaborate desserts, and to be honest you probably won’t want much of anything after a dinner a la famiglia. But just in case there’s still a corner not already crammed, allow me to suggest the pinenut and chestnut-honey tart. It’s just rich enough to be satisfying, small enough not to seem excessive.
Italians, whether magro or grasso, readily admit to consuming wine, and though Tre’s list isn’t encyclopedic, it is comprehensive enough to get a real feel for the breadth and depth of Italian wine production. Offerings by the quartino, served in a sleek beaker, are varied enough to allow sampling of both a satisfyingly earthy Feudi Falanghina and a sophisticated Col D’Orcia Spezieri. Unless you order one of the more expensive wines on the list, which gives you access to stemware, your wine will be drunk from sturdy tumblers — all the better for making exuberant toasts. So here’s one: to Tre Trattoria and all of us: Live long and prosper. Though if you can get a family of four to agree on a single entrée, prosperity and longevity are already assured, I’d venture. •