Santa Fe, I'm so jealous! Your lovely city may be the proud posessor of the most authentic -- and delicious -- Italian restaurant in the US.
Before our trip to Santa Fe, I went to this board for advice. I received comments about many, many restaurants, but there was a profound silence about Trattoria Nostrani. I did a search of the board, and in the year prior to my trip, I had written the name "Trattoria Nostrani" more times than anyone else. Understandably, my husband and I wondered what we were getting into when we arrived at Trattoria Nostrani.
The quick answer to this question is "amazingly wonderful food that respects the traditions of Italy." Specifically, this means that the restaurant sources the best quality ingredients and treats them simply and with skill so that the essential deliciousness of the ingredients shines through.
We travel in Italy at least every other year, and, as a result, we have a hard time eating Italian food in the US. Italian food here simply isn't as good as food at the source. Maybe it's a matter of learning to make pasta at you grandmother's knees. Maybe it's the quality of the ingredients. Whatever the reason, an Italian meal in the US is yummy enough, but doesn't reach the transcendent heights of the best cooking in Italy. Trattoria Nostrani is the real deal. In fact, we ate at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome this past April (Agata y Romeo) and enjoyed the food less than the food we ate at Trattoria Nostrani.
In a field of excellent dishes, the following food was life-altering:
o tuna crudo. The easy way to describe this is the Italian version of sashimi. Slices of the best raw tuna I've ever eaten were seasoned with only good-quality extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt. Exquisite! (This was the first time the restaurant has served crudo, but, for others' sake, I hope it won't be the last. The logistics of bringing the tuna from from Tokyo fish market to the restaurant are daunting-but-worthwhile.)
o risotto with shrimp and herbs. The rice had the perfect balance of creaminess and toothiness, and the shrimp were perfectly cooked -- moist and delicious.
o veal saltimbocca. My husband and I were so awed by Chef Nellie's cooking that we returned to the restaurant a second night. Other than requesting a veal dish on the basis of the amazing free-range veal (Vitello tonnato) my husband ate the first night, we left the menu entirely in the hands of the chef. Lovely!
o chitarra (square-cut pasta) with shrimp, crispy quail pancetta, tomatoes, and arugula emulsion. Amazing! The pasta was perfectly cooked. The small crispy bits of pancetta were a wonderful foil for the soft texture of the other ingredients.
I know people have railed against the restaurant's fragrance-free policy. I have no issue with this. The web site and the staff of the restaurant politely informs all diners. There's no imperiousness. No smugness about the rightness of this policy. Just a calm, informative statement.
I know others have criticized the clubiness of the co-owner, Eric, and his friends. I don't understand this criticism. We weren't Eric's friends before walking through the door. Furthermore, we're out-of-towners so we aren't likely to become regulars. However, we were treated with immense warmth. I suspect that our experience was the direct result of our enthusiasm for the food. But what's wrong with that? After all, what restaurant wouldn't respond warmly to patrons who become fans?
However, I overheard too many conversations to think that our treatment was unique. Eric makes friends of his clients, and endeavors to meet their needs. For example, at one table, the diners left the wine choice to Eric. When the waiter pressed them for some description of their preferences to share with Eric, the diners responded by saying, "Just tell Eric what we're eating. He's never steered us wrong." (Admittedly, there was no mention of cost, but the emphasis was on Eric having learned and met their needs.) At another table, one woman said that she wasn't extremely hungry so the waiter offered to prepare half a portion of the chicken and mushroom dish. And so on...
I know folks don't come to Santa Fe explicitly to eat Italian food, but I'm sure glad we ignored the absence of compliments and the carping we had heard before-hand to eat at Trattoria Nostrani. Delizioso!