Queens on the Adriatic: An Old-School Italian Standby Stands Out
When you enter Trattoria L'incontro (21-76 31st Street, Queens, 718-721-3532), you may be greeted by an unironic exclamation of "Mamma mia!" It came on a recent visit from chef and owner Rocco Sacramone, who, on any given night, can be found schmoozing diners old and new. It's a mistake to read the utterance as Little Italy cheesiness or parody: L'incontro may be kitschy, but the restaurant's familial vibe is the real deal.
Sacramone opened L'incontro in 1999, drawing on his roots for the menu, and accepting aid and recipes from his mother, Tina, who often tends to sauces in the kitchen. The Sacramones hail from Abruzzo, a region of Central Italy blessed with a highly varied cuisine, thanks to its geography: It's spanned by the Apennines mountain range and bordered by the Adriatic, and L'incontro's offerings reflect the bounty of both land and sea.
Despite deep-seated traditions, this homey kitchen has proven itself enthusiastic about experimentation. The menu swings back and forth gracefully, from classic to innovative, and it inspires reverence from locals and treks to the end of the N Line from Manhattanites. This is fine dining liberated from celebrity-chef pretensions, not to mention the mustiness of other long-running Italian joints.
The dining room is bedecked with frescoes of bucolic scenes, and sound resonates in the cavernous, wedding hall-size space. Don't count on intimate, murmured conversation here. This is a special-occasion restaurant, and you'll find yourself amid large groups that look as though there's nowhere they'd rather be -- and there probably isn't.
Once you're seated and nibbling on triangles of focaccia and sundried-tomato spread, servers will recite to you an epic poem of specials. This is a good place to start. You'll find that each dish, be it time-honored or cutting-edge, is constructed from just a few, lightly touched seasonal ingredients. One night, that specials list included a salad of prosciutto, mixed greens, figs, and Parmesan shavings. It was a visually enticing blend of hues, the ham's saltiness balanced by the sweet, squishy fruit. Another special, of heirloom cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and basil ice cream, sounded like dessert; once mixed, the sweet and savory flavors melded elegantly, creating a refreshing opening course.
Still another special featured fried zucchini blossoms, with a tempura-like coating and a dollop of Fontina in the center. Crisp and oily, they eat like stylish bar food. Consider pairing them with an order of yellowtail carpaccio, which a waiter described as "Italian sushi": The mild raw fish comes furled around kumquats, which add a pop of citrus to each bite.
The kitchen makes its burrata in-house, injecting mozzarella skin with cheese curd, and the result is shown whole to the table before being divided into smaller portions. It's served with prosciutto and basil, and the fresh, rich taste makes ordinary mozzarella seem leaden by comparison.
Pastas come with a few eye-catching flourishes. Creamy tomato rabbit ragù adds a touch of gaminess to house-made pappardelle; spaghetti and meatballs stand out for their bright, zippy red sauce and the juicy, substantial beef-and-pork meatballs. The mezzaluna ravioli, from Tina's recipe playbook, are a high point of the noodle list: Filled with mascarpone cheese and pesto, the delicate half-moons are bathed in a buttery walnut sauce with a hint of sage.
Traditionally, you'd have meat after your pasta, and you should consider that here, too -- but know that meat and fish dishes often draw upon the decadence of bygone fine dining, though the artful visual presentation, and the harmonization of simple, fresh ingredients, make a good argument for such classic recipes being timeless. A veal chop, tender and pink in the center, requires nothing more than the porcini mushrooms it comes with, which soak in the meat's juices and take on its soulful richness. Dover sole comes beautifully filleted, the delicate fish elevated by a lemon sauce and framed by its skeleton, with fresh cilantro perched like little green flags atop the bones.
If you're celebrating your own special occasion -- or even if you're not -- you shouldn't fail to consider dessert. Final courses boast well-executed, contrasting textures and sweetness that don't overpower after a heavy meal. The lemon ricotta cheesecake, creamy and bright at once, is a solid take on an Italian classic, but the Nutella pizza, a dish that sounds gimmicky, is better: a thin, crisp exterior gives way to warm, semisweet hazelnut, with hazelnut gelato doing a slow melt on top.
When the tab arrives, you might be slightly taken aback: The service is so amiable, the atmosphere so down-to-earth, that it's possible to forget that this is upscale dining at New York prices. But for special-occasion Italian, it would be difficult to find another restaurant that delivers a sprawling, diverse menu with such charm. The unpretentious, communal warmth of Trattoria L'incontro provides a dose of home comfort -- just the tonic to ward off anonymity, that perpetually looming hazard of big-city living.