There's something about red-sauce Italian. You'd think its fate would have been sealed a generation ago, when Northern Italian restaurants began to creep out of Little Italys and into malls and Main Streets. With their dark, sophisticated sauces and starched white linen, these restaurants raised the bar for Italian cuisine by teaching Americans that the old macaroni-and-meat-sauce combos, so simple they could be sold in a can, were but a faint echo of real Italian cooking.
And if that wasn't the end of the red-sauce restaurant, then surely the rise of regional Italian cooking in the 1990s, when risotto and crespelle joined the lexicon, would drive a stake in its heart. In the 21st century, restaurateurs have even developed a rebuttal to the pizzeria: the wood- or coal-fired oven serving Neapolitan-grade pies in casually classy BYO bistros. How could the old style of Italian-American dining persevere?
And yet here we are. Many Italian restaurants are now in their third generation of serving lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs to ever-appreciative diners, and new places are always opening to rehearse the old recipes. For all of Italian cooking's subtlety and sophistication, it turns out there's something deeply appealing about what Italian-Americans cobbled together in the middle of the last century.
Matteo's, on Butler Street, doesn't play the retro card. There are no raffia-covered chianti bottles in sight, no red-checked tablecloths, no plastic grapevines or oil paintings of Venetian canals. The vibe is thoroughly modern and chic, but the menu is firmly grounded in the old school of Italian-American cooking, even if the preparations are contemporary.
Perhaps nothing captured this as well as the bread course. The small braided loaf — just the right size for a family of four — evoked American Italian bread with its firm crust and airy interior. But while "Italian bread" as we know it is nearly flavorless, Matteo's had a crust that was browned to a toasty caramel, while the interior uncoiled stretchily and tasted slightly, addictively rich.
Seafood pizza was similarly upgraded to a thin and chewy flatbread topped with stringy cheese and a shellfish trio of crabmeat, shrimp and scallops. This is a typical seafood-pizza combo which has frequently disappointed us in the past, but not at Matteo's, where the shrimp and scallops were plump, the crab tender and just warmed, and a flourish of garlicky olive oil united the whole ensemble.
These satisfying beginnings were the highlights of our meal. Mussels with bacon and blue cheese were a welcome departure from the usual white-wine broth, which can be soupy. In this preparation, there was little watery broth hiding the main attractions, but also not enough bacon or blue cheese to bring these interesting flavors to the fore.
Lamb ragu over pasta (we chose campanelli) was underseasoned, except for an over-abundance of rosemary, and too far to the sweet end of the tomato-sauce spectrum. Any one of these flaws would have been acceptable, given the countering virtues of tender ground lamb, well-proportioned tomato and just-right al dente noodles, but the trifecta threw the flavor of the sauce too far off balance.
The failure of veal marsala was harder to explain. This is typically served as an entrée with pasta marinara on the side, so we were a bit surprised to see several semi-medallions of veal served in a brown broth over noodles. Along with mushrooms, the veal swam in this soupy sauce that was velvety in texture, but utterly lacking marsala's distinctive tang or the savory pan drippings that are supposed to form the basis of the dish.
Pumpkin tortellini promised a seasonal treat in sage browned butter, but the squash's sweetness predominated, and there was so much melted fat pooled at the bottom of the dish as to be unappetizing. We did note that the tortellini appeared to have been briefly sautéed in a pan before being sauced, faintly crisping their outsides as an armor against the butter bath.
Matteo's basic concept of traditional Italian-American fare, subtly updated, seems a good match for Lawrenceville, a neighborhood poised to broaden its appeal. In addition, Matteo's atmosphere, service, and, we must say, its cocktail menu are superb. But somewhere the attempt to translate the less-ambitious cooking of a previous generation for the sophisticated palates of this one seems to have gone awry, with neither the homey comforts of the old nor the refined approach of the new triumphing.