If Seattle can have a coffee shop every half block, Rhode Island deserves an Italian restaurant in every neighborhood. And as regional addictions go, olive oil will keep you going a lot longer than caffeine. So while Chiazza Trattoria may look like just another sleek Mediterranean bistro, it also furthers a local tradition.
The atmosphere is informal, but the décor is chichi enough to attract the fern-bar crowd. The menu calls this “A Meeting Place for Friends and Family.” A bar dominates the space on the right as you enter. Bustling about, a black-clad waitstaff grabs plates from a busy open kitchen. Filling out the picture of European languor are posters for aperitif s and cheese, and columns are attractively tiled in muted browns and grays.
Italian bread — brought almost as soon as we sat down — came in a black wire spiral cone. It’s baked here to recipe, fresh and chewy ciabatta, served with a bowl of olive oil containing plenty of roasted garlic and caramelized onion to spread. Chef/proprietor Ed Milizzo, who used to be at Portobella in Newport, has an eye on what’s popular — a raw bar and deep-fried calamari, for example. Among the signature items, which include burgers with Gorgonzola and balsamic-glazed grilled items, the riskiest is crab cakes with herbs and scallions.
Carrying on the theme of aiming to please, in addition to traditional Italian wedding soup and pasta e fagioli (both $4.99), New England clam chowder ($5.99) is available. One original touch on the soups and salads list is pizza salad ($8.99), basically a pizza baked in the shape of a bowl and filled with mixed greens tossed with vinaigrette. We didn’t risk checking it out — let me know if you do — since it’s hard to imagine the topping not sloughing off, though they must have solved that problem. Gee, but it’s great to be in the hands of culinary professionals. We did try the “zippy shrimp” ($9.99). I polished them off, but wouldn’t recommend them. The ginger in the spicy teriyaki marinade didn’t come across, and the mainly mayonnaise-sesame dipping sauce could have used more than a hint of sesame oil.
Wood grilling has been hot around here for several years, and Chiazza has gone so far as to import its oak-fired brick oven from Italy. Eight pizzas are on the menu, from $6.99-$11.99, and adding meat or vegetable toppings is only 60 cents per item. One combination, topped with fig jam, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola sounds so right it’s surprising you don’t see it everywhere. The grilled eggplant and artichoke pizza with smoked mozzarella looked tempting — steaks have enough going for them, but eggplants can rise to seraphic heights on a wood grill. Johnnie was attracted by the portobello and caramelized onion one, though, so I deferred and wasn’t disappointed. It featured thin crust, thin layer of dense plum tomato sauce, and lots of the active ingredients atop mozzarella — delicious.
Up for pasta, I considered the make-your-own opportunity of choosing from lists of pastas, sauces, and meatballs, grilled chicken, or shrimp. But the penne fontina ($12.99) sounded just right, and it was. In a pink vodka sauce, bits of asparagus provided a nice crunchy contrast to the roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and whole straw mushrooms. It was a satisfying combination.