Is anything more ubiquitous than an Italian restaurant? I mean, they are everywhere and like a chameleon assume many guises. Nevertheless, Sous Chef and I are always on the look out for a good, unique Italian restaurant, particularly during our many travels. Our efforts were rewarded recently when we tried a fantastic neighborhood gem in Pasadena that was recommended by my foodie pal Kimberly of The Unorthodox Foodie. Kimberly and I have similar tastes in food, art, and men from USC (her Gardener is an USC Alum and she is subject to the same social and travel restrictions imposed by the USC football schedule as I am), so I value her advice.
At first glance I was enamored with Trattoria Neapolis. At first bite, it was unrequited love. With mouth full of salumi, I informed Sous Chef we were moving from the Coachella Valley back to his old stomping grounds of Pasadena so we could dine at Trattoria Neapolis every day. Yes, the food was that good, and the service–from hostess to server to chef– made us feel like we were part of the family.
Approaching Trattoria Neapolis from the entrance on Lake Avenue, you enter a light, airy, and bright garden room that instantly makes you feel as if you have stepped into a trattoria in Italy circa 1930’s. Each side of the garden room is flanked by cozy banquettes set for two or four, and a charming communal table fills the middle of the room. But like an artichoke, the inside is what is truly special. When you leave the garden room you step into a dark, rich room filled with handsome woods, chandeliers, and a Carrera marble bar. The 7,000 pound wood burning pizza oven glows in the background and the cooler filled with house-cured salumis is beckoning you like a shoe sale at Nordstrom’s. Wrought iron wraps decoratively around the mezzanine from which you get a picturesque view of the restaurant’s interior.
Santos, our friendly and knowledgeable server, suggested we start our lunch with a handcrafted cocktail. The cocktail menu was brimming with unique creations that included some of my favorite liquors – Aperol, Campari, Gin, Amaro, Bourbon — so I asked Santos for a recommendation and he persuaded me to try the Melon Milano. This luscious libation is made from house-infused cantaloupe vodka, fresh lemon, Aperol, and basil. It is beautiful in color and refreshing in taste. A great way to start a memorable meal.
The menu is replete with tantalizing offerings, most of which we wanted to try, so it was hard to narrow down our selections. We ended up creating our own “tasting” menu that consisted of an antipasti of salumi and arancini, a primi of a caprese salad and gazpacho, a secondi of an arugula and prosciutto pizza, and a finito of a trio of gelatos. Normally, we would have paired each course with wine. But since Sous Chef could not imbibe that day, I limited Santos to pairing an Italian wine with the antipasti/primi courses and the secondi course.
The Salumi consisted of a selection of hand crafted cured meats, house pickled vegetables, and fig jelly. Lingua (tongue), coppa, prosciutto, and testa (head cheese) were glorious. Honestly, if I had selected for myself I would have left off the lingua and the testa just based on their origin. But as I am striving to “Live Like Julia,” I tried everything. I was pleasantly surprised by the tender texture and enjoyable flavor of the ligua and found the testa was quite delightful and like a country pate that you slather on a slice of fresh baked bread. And, frankly, seeing the salumis hanging in its cooler and knowing they were hand crafted made the whole salumi experience special and more enjoyable.
Next up was the Arancini. I’ve made Arancini before and love the repurposing of yesterday’s rice or risotto into today’s appetizer. Crispy, sweet corn risotto balls were filled with pieces of mozzarella, prosciutto and shrimp and were accompanied by a basil aioli. The Arancini was perfectly paired with a glass of Rose IL Fresco Villa Sandi NV, Veneto. I could have stopped after the antipasti and been completely sated and happy, but where would the story be in that? So onward we went to the primi course.
Sous Chef is a gazpacho connoisseur, at least in his own mind. If it is on the menu, no matter the season or temperature, he orders it and compares it to his beloved gazpacho served at Annandale Golf Club in Pasadena. To date, only Jose Andre’s gazpacho has merited his complete approval, and in occasional reflective moments he has acknowledged its superiority in texture and appearance. Otherwise, nothing compares to Annandale’s version, but the tasting still continues. Sous Chef enjoyed this gazpacho and we both remarked that you could taste a little heat in the soup, most likely from the addition of extra garlic, which made it feel more Italian in origin than Spanish. Sous Chef says he will order the gazpacho again, which is high praise from him.
Pizza is a sacred food to me. I love it, could eat it every day, and think it can be one of our healthier foods when it is prepared properly. The crust should be light and crispy, the toppings fresh as if just picked out of the garden, and cheese should be used judiciously. For our secondi, spicy arugula was scattered over a layer of prosciutto on a crispy crust that had just the right amount of char. Oven roasted tomatoes and a bit of smoked buffalo mozzarella completed the pizza toppings. It was heavenly. Nothing was overdone, and the crust was neither soggy nor heavily weighed down by the toppings. This sublime pizza was paired with a glass of Montefalco Rosso, Moretti Omero, Umbria 2010. This Super Tuscan is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Sagrantino, and while it is most likely served with grilled or roasted red meats, its versatility made it an excellent accompaniment to the pizza. Oh, and this wine is organic and suitable for vegetarians and vegans alike.
Alas, the end of the luncheon feast was in sight and Sous Chef could not leave without a sampling of house-made gelatos, pistachio being Sous Chef’s favorite. And to make the experience even more memorable, Chef Bryant Wigger visited our table to talk about the meal and his restaurant. Chef Wigger is very engaging and truly passionate about his menu and his salumi. He finds curing meat helps to release stress, so he must be somewhat stress free since the cooler is packed with slab after slab of curing meat.
There are many things to like about Trattoria Neapolis, starting with the food and service. But a couple of things in particular caught my attention. Chef Wigger’s menu is innovative yet diverse enough to allow one the freedom to craft a truly enjoyable meal depending on your tastes and how piggish you are feeling at the moment. At lunch, there are sandwiches and burgers and main course salads if you are so inclined. And at dinner there are enough main course options to satisfy a discriminating carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore. Also, Trattoria Neapolis is a great spot for a cocktail or glass of wine. The Wine Director is the vice president of the North American Sommelier Association and the Cocktail Director was nominated for “Best Bartender in America,” not surprising since my Melon Milano was certainly an excellent example of his bartending creativity. Plus the long, Carrera marble bar is as comfortable as it is inviting. Although the omnipresent large, flat screen television is in residence, it is tuned to the black-and-white setting which gives the images a rather nostalgic look and does not overwhelm or detract from the beauty of the restaurant’s décor. The setting and food choices make this a perfect place for happy hour or a light dinner.
Trattoria Neapolis is now one of my “must dine at” spots in Pasadena. Stop by and see why.
336 South Lake Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101