My sister-in-law invited me over for dinner recently. She has many redeeming qualities and talents, but her home-cooked concoctions often leave me feeling ill and ready for a long walk. Fortunately, I had a food review assignment and had to decline.
However, I wish I had bought a bottle of wine, sacrificed concern for my digestive system and taken my sister-in-law up on her offer. Instead, I consumed a meal of unnecessary proportions and price that lacked in flavor and quality—a meal indicative of a restaurant having a bit of an identity crisis and most likely suffering from the current woes of a stagnant economy.
Italian food is about soul and warmth. After eating a full plate of pasta, a person should feel like he or she is wrapped up in a huge hug, or has paid all of the bills with money left over to do something fun. An Italian meal should equal comfort.
Rotella's Trattoria is situated in a short strip mall next to a nail parlor. The location itself didn't cause me to worry since the most delicious meals can often be found at similar holes in the wall.
Rotella's menu is interesting in that its major section is designed to let the customer pair a sauce with a noodle of their choosing, including various toppings, which can be added to the dish (for an extra fee).
My mother, in town for a visit, joined me for dinner and we munched happily on warm bread and a decent olive oil-based dipping sauce. I narrowed my sights on the Burro Bruciato ($11.97), a butter sage sauce seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon. To complement the savory sauce, I picked pumpkin ravioli ($3.97 extra) and a fruit-laden red Tommasi Rompicollo wine from Tuscany ($8).
When my plate arrived, I was not immediately excited. The sauce was not what I had expected. I had envisioned a white sauce, with flecks of spice floating throughout. Instead, I had a shallow bowl full of oily butter sauce with the spices dusted over the top. Most of the dish's flavor was encapsulated in the ravioli, but the pumpkin filling was bitter after two or three bites, and the noodles were tough and chewy.
My mother ordered Rotella's Classico red sauce ($11.97) over pasta. The sauce was a vibrant color, but slightly bland and left me thinking longingly about the jar of Newman's Own in my fridge.
The one highlight of the meal was dessert. I seldom say no to creme brulee, and though I was a bit wary, this time was no exception. Instead of being garnished with the usual vanilla bean, chocolate or fruit syrup, Rotella's was remarkable because it was delicately flavored with lavender. The top was warm and crispy, as it should be, and the inside, cold, smooth and creamy.
As my mother and I sat and contemplated our meals and patted our bellies, I wondered if, at times, too many choices is a bad thing. Perhaps by limiting menu choice and pairing food for customers, Rotella's could avoid some dissatisfaction. And with times as tough as they are in the restaurant biz, some less expensive options—maybe a healthy portion of a simple pasta and sauce—might leave customers feeling like they had a good meal for a good value. As evidenced by the care taken with the cleanliness of the restaurant, the creativity of the menu and the delicious dessert, maybe just tightening up the menu would bring focus to creating a more intimate and specialized dining experience. As it stands now, my experience is lodged between the Olive Garden and that happy hole in the wall.
—Anne Henderson's penchant for Paul Newman supersedes his sauce.