Some restaurants have it almost despite themselves. Others never get it, no matter how hard they try.
Tramonti has it -- the buzz, the zip, the electric surge of happy diners enjoying fine food and service in an atmosphere still informal enough to let people table-hop and howl through "Happy Birthday." Though other new Atlantic Avenue eateries hunger for more business, this 7-month-old spot crackles with life.
Of course, pedigree helps. When you've been sired by Angelo's of Mulberry Street, a Manhattan must-eat since 1902, you can afford to rent a $30-per-square-foot space on one of South Florida's most expensive strips of real estate. You can also afford to top the bar with marble and leather, throw in a wine list dripping with 350 engaging varieties that cost up to $250 per bottle, and even drop space heaters from the ceiling of the sidewalk café section for those winter evenings when diners want to embrace some al fresco street life without catching a chill.
119 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561-272-1944.
Lunch 11:30 a.m. till 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Dinner 5 till 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till midnight Friday and Saturday.
Credit the Silvestri and Aprea families, owners of restaurants in New York and Fort Lauderdale, for keeping all these smart management ideas in the family for more than a century. Tramonti owner Gino Silvestri, Executive Chef Alessandro Silvestri, chef Angelo Tacuri, and many of its all-male wait staff appear to be hired directly from family enclaves in Manhattan's Little Italy. Many of the waiters, who wear royal-blue shirts and black pants, have a wonderfully continental-Lothario look, as if they just finished filming a Vittorio de Sica trilogy. (There are exceptions. Our waiter, Anthony, was a union electrician in New York until a year ago.)
If you're too spontaneous to make reservations, efficient hostess Hillary may make you wait for 15 or 20 minutes. But soon enough, Hillary will lead you to a table nicely placed with a view of Delray's version of the Left Bank. Menu in hand, waiter Anthony will pour your first glass of pino grigio Aristocratico ($34); you can smile benignly at the curtain-framed alcoves with murals of Italian scenes and know you're ready for the real McCoyaninni.
Many of the 20 appetizers, 16 first-course items, ten fish dishes, and 16 second-course items on Tramonti's menu have been seen in other places. Such is the long and popular history of Neapolitan cuisine in America. But if recipes such as carpaccio di manzo, linguine alle vongole, vitello piccata, and cotoletta alla parmiginana seem familiar, that's because Angelo's probably set the standards years ago on lower Manhattan's Mulberry Street.
But be wary. The menu is also a sly deception. Nothing seems particularly expensive in itself. The appetizers (all around $10 to $11) and pastas ($18 to $20) are similarly priced, and the entrées (around $20) don't appear to be out of line. Clever. Offer to pay for dinner for three and watch the tariff add up faster than the calories in tiramisu. Not to worry. Tramonti is still cheaper than Mancini's, more authentic than the Olive Garden, and more fun than Buca di Beppo. Besides, if there were a price ceiling on pleasure, no one would salivate for sable.
The disciplined and wise will be able to skip reaching into the basket of warm sourdough bread and dive immediately into the appetizers. Stay with the classics -- as if you could avoid them. The mozzarella di bufala affumicata alla griglia ($10.50) -- grilled, smoked buffalo mozzarella with shiitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil -- is a seductive combination with a minimum of sin: a respect for unadulterated tastes bursts from the fresh ingredients. The melenzane ripiene alla sorrentina ($8.50) -- eggplants rollatini stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella in a San Marzano tomato sauce -- are as full of evanescent pleasures as the ballet. (And the explicit mention of "San Marzano" on a menu doesn't indicate a cheap sense of self-display. In this case, the San Marzano is the kind of tomato that foodists rhapsodize about -- less sugar, less acid, Vesuvian soil filters, and more, certainly better than the plebian roma variety.)
For our first course, my table shared (at a $5 charge) an order of fettucine al salmone ($17.50), in this case homemade noodles with pesto sauce and salmon. Forks flew; the flavorful, not-too-salty pesto and pieces of fresh fish swam briefly through the al dente noodles in a pond of a bowl, were stabbed, and then disappeared, only to reappear on waistlines the next day.
Anthony was patient; he recited the entrée specials twice while tearing himself away from watching the Chargers lose a football game on the TV set over the bar. (He became much friendlier during the course of the meal, after he discovered his beloved Jets had won.) We couldn't ignore the rissotto Mediterranean ($19.50) or the ravioli stuffed with truffles in an alfredo sauce ($19.50). (This is not a kitchen with a pronounced aversion to cheese sauces, heavy cream, or sticks of butter.)
Anthony served the rissotto in a dish large enough to bathe an infant. Rissotto is the essence of comfort food, but any dish served in a small tub is less enticing than menacing. Such was the case with this version. The appropriate touch of lemon was there, the generous chunks of fresh shellfish -- squid, mussels, shrimp, scallops -- added the necessary tang, but the intimidating, even gross, portion made this choice a doggy-bag candidate.
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The ravioli fared much better. Who would argue with anything stuffed with white truffles? Of course, truffles can be tricky. Their intense flavor should be savored only in small amounts -- indeed, there wasn't much inside these four pillowy ravioli covered smoothly in a cream sauce with just the right touch of salt and garlic. Five dollars per ravioli?
As is so often the case in modern restaurants, desserts are off-the-rack. Tramonti produces only a cannoli ($6) on site. But Pastry Chef Alex Olano can breathe easily; the cannoli lives up to the rest of the meal. The crust was crisp and not overly fried, and the harmonic convergence of sugar, cinnamon, and ricotta was Bach-like.
Pedigree goes only so far. Though Tramonti has been birthed by a successful parent, a new restaurant opens with only a temporary blessing.
Despite these high stakes, Tramonti has succeeded at being many local diners' favorite night out on an avenue that is fast becoming what Ocean Drive used to be and Las Olas wishes it were. In the perish-or-die world of Atlantic Avenue restaurants, this achievement is no mean feast.