I made a full family outing to Pop's Trattoria near Brightleaf Square in Durham last night. I have nothing against Pop's in particular, but I feel a growing annoyance with the kind of restaurant that Pop's represents (as do Panzanella, 411 West, Aurora, and to a lesser extent Vespa). This is Italian food that has been simplified and smoothed over to conform to the expectations of the American palette. The formula is the same in each case: pizzas, pastas, chops, and Americanized desserts, with a very narrow range of ingredients and flavors, all set amid a yuppie-pleasing contemporary room. These restaurants are not bad by any means, but they are certainly boring and redundant. I gather that they are specifically designed to appeal to a very wide -- perhaps too wide -- range of clientelle, and strike me as not much more than nicely refined versions of the Olive Garden. I have a particular gripe against the pizzas, which are light and putatively sophisticated, but ultimately completely wimpy. The great pizzas of New Haven, which set the global benchmark as far as I'm concerned, arrive from their massive brick ovens looking as if they'd been struck by lightning, resplendent with the flavor of smoke and olive oil and oregano. Pizzas should not be mere hors d'ouevres to go with a crisp glass of white wine.
Last weekend I dined in New York and had a very simple but truly wonderful meal at a restaurant called Sette Mezzo (Lexington and 70th Street). The meal consisted of fried zuchinni matchsticks, a chunk or fresh mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and dappled with cubed bits of fresh tomato, and potato gnocchi with tomato sauce. There was nothing elaborate or expensive about this, but the ingredients were maximally fresh, the flavors were bold, and the textures were precise and varied. I was thrilled by it. I think our local Italian restaurants would do well to take what they're doing somewhat more seriously, though the prospects are probably dim, as all of these restaurants seem to be making money hand over fist.