I was treated to dinner at opening night for Chris Bianco’s newest restaurant in Phoenix, Tratto, a place with – gasp – no pizza, just house-made pastas and other dishes inspired largely by regional Italian cuisine, especially the peasant foods that are near and dear to Bianco’s heart. While he’s made his name as both one of the country’s most prominent pizzaiolo’s and the king of Phoenix’s under-the-radar food scene, Bianco’s passion extends to all foods, and Tratto’s menu allows him to pursue that further by working with more local vendors and incorporating ingredients you’d never see on his pizzerias’ menus.
The menu at Tratto, which is next door to the Pizzeria Bianco location in the Town & Country shopping center at 20th and Highland, is going to change frequently, but the format is simple – a couple of starters, a couple of pasta dishes, a couple of mains, and a couple of desserts, two of each on the day I was there. I took Chris’s recommendations and ordered the beets, the tonnarelli, and the “piccolo” chicken, after which there was no room for anything else.
The tonnarelli was the star of the night, a dish of maybe five ingredients that showcased the pasta (also known as spaghetti alla chitarra, referring to the guitar-like device used to cut it) by coating it with a luxurious sauce without much else on the plate. Tonnarelli are thicker than most hand-cut pastas, like spaghetti but square in cross-section rather than round, so they have a substantial tooth to them and take longer to cook than flat shapes. Pasta alla gricia is cooked with guanciale, a type of cured meat like bacon but made from the pig’s jowls, that is rendered and tossed with the starchy pasta water to make a thick, salty sauce that’s finished with Pecorino Romano, itself a pungent, salty cheese of sheep’s milk. It’s like pasta alla carbonara without eggs. Tratto’s was perfect because the pasta was perfect, and the guanciale and cheese combine for a fatty, salty, umami-rich sauce that go particularly well with the various forms of alcohol available (Tratto has a well-stocked liquor bar, including an impressive collection of amaros).
The “piccolo” chicken is not your ordinary four-pound broiler-fryer, but a local, uncaged variety that’s closer to pasture-raised in texture, bigger than a Cornish game hen but small enough that you could have that and a starter or side vegetable and call it a meal. Tratto splits the bird, roasts it, and finishes it under the salamander, and the bird is seasoned only with salt, pepper, lemon, and bay leaves. I rarely order chicken in restaurants, especially not anything with the white meat (which has no taste if we’re talking about a normal bird), but Chris said to me it’s both the best and the most expensive chicken he’s ever had in one of his restaurants, and it showed through in how much flavor the chicken had with minimal seasoning. I would have used the amazing bread to sop up the liquid on the plate but I’d already done that with the pasta.
The beets were the one dish I didn’t love – they were roasted perfectly, fork-tender, but as much as I love beets I think they need more acidity than the dish included, and the gorgonzola-based sauce didn’t quite get there. The breads, made over at Pane Bianco (which I’ve mentioned before, but has since been expanded and is now the central baking operation for the Bianco group, as well as an amazing sandwich shop with daily pizza al taglio specials), are spectacular, and the bar program at Tratto is also very impressive. I sat at the bar and got to admire the selection of high-end spirits and chat up the knowledgeable bartender as well, who fixed a “turmeric mule” for me with Ford’s Gin. They also have Amaro Montenegro, which is my favorite drinking bitters and I think a requirement for any real Italian place.
I had one meal in Sacramento, for which I solicited suggestions from my Twitter audience (including several dozen would-be comedians suggesting chains or fast-food places, which was rather unoriginal). Many of your best suggestions were closed on Monday night, my only evening there, but I did have a wonderful meal at Magpie, which one of you suggested with the hook that they have homemade ice cream sandwiches for dessert. The highest praise I can offer this place is that I still enjoyed the meal despite having a painful migraine for most of it.
Magpie’s menu also changes frequently, but the two dishes I had prior to the main event both appear to be regular items. The crispy pork belly starter included several large cubes of perfectly-cooked belly, crispy on the exterior but tender on the interior, served with slivers of apricot, coriander honey, pickled onions, and frisee. Pork belly pairs well with anything sweet, but needs some tartness to cut that sweetness and the fattiness of the meat itself, which here came from both the sweet-tart apricots and the pickled onions. The duck confit salad was really two dishes in one bowl: A confit duck leg, served hot over roasted potatoes, served in the center of a salad of spring vegetables, including snap peas and English peas, as well as Brooks cherries and a cherry vinaigrette. I think if I ate this again, I’d ask for a separate plate so I could cut or shred the duck and then toss the meat into the salad, as it was hard to get all of the flavors into one bite. Duck and tart fruits pair so well together but I rarely got that combination, although the duck itself was nicely cooked and the potatoes had soaked up some flavor from sitting under the leg.
The ice cream sandwich, though, man … that’s good stuff. I don’t even love star anise, but the soft graham-like wafers had just a hint of star anise flavor around the central block of smooth vanilla ice cream. Whatever, I’m not going to do this dessert justice. It was big enough for two people to share and I nearly ate the whole thing despite the fact that I could barely hold my head up at this point. I’d like to go back there some time when I’m feeling okay and perhaps try one of their house cocktails too.