Venice was the right place at the right time. Not the city — which we were dining our way through at this time last year — but rather the Westerly restaurant. Driving through a cold and rainy South County, we were beckoned by a place that beckons like it was a campfire in the winter woods.
The semiformal atmosphere strikes an inviting balance between comfort and indulgence. The waitstaff wear ties and black aprons; a stuccoed partition next to our table was topped with plants; paintings were mostly picturesque scenes of Venice.
Despite the name, the restaurant doesn’t offer Venetian specialties — there isn’t even prosecco among the bubblies on the lengthy list of 80 or so wines, 17 by the glass. Menu offerings are as all over the map of Italy, just as the wine list is all over the globe. Under “Pesce e Crostaceo,” you can have tuna or swordfish prepared Sicilian style, the former with a kalamata olive, pine nut, and golden raisin caponata; the latter with a salmoriglio sauce, featuring olive oil and balsamic vinegar ($19 and $18). Northern Italian recipes are represented by such lighter preparations as veal or chicken piccata ($16-$18).
The heart of this kitchen is in the South, tipped off by the antipasto ($9) containing meatballs and the locally appreciated “soupy,” dried sausage. A recent six-course meal at Venice was billed as “A Tour of Southern Italy.” The only soup permanently on the menu is pasta e fagioli ($3-$4). It’s a sort of pan-Italian pasta-and-bean soup, with distinct variations in regions from Tuscany to Sicily, but is known in the US as pasta fazool, as it is called in Naples. This restaurant has a good recipe, sticking to tradition by using tubettini pasta but venturing to include great northerns instead of the similar cannelloni beans, an incremental flavor boost.
We’ve also had their mussels zuppa ($7), which were fat, fresh, and swimming in plenty of garlicky white wine sauce to dip bread into. But this time I tried their grilled portobello ($7) for an appetizer, a good choice. The saucer-size cap was topped with green peas, bits of the shrimp, spinach, and — odd choice — Swiss cheese, full of flavors. The presentation was elegant: surrounded by a confetti of vari-colored bell pepper bits and ground black pepper, in a pool of tasty pink brandy cream sauce. Johnnie was up for the Boston bibb salad ($7), which was chock full of crumbled Gorgonzola, candied walnuts, and sun-dried tomatoes, tossed with a not-too-tart balsamic vinaigrette that she loved.
Herb-infused olive oil is on the table, as well as softened butter in a little bowl next to the breadbasket. It’s good to have your health provided for unasked. Perusing the pastas, I noticed that they still had a dish appreciated during our last visit. The scallops alla vodka ($18) had impressed me with a touch of smokiness in the sauce as well as the freshness of the scallops. The seafood fra diavola ($18) was especially tempting this time, since I knew the restaurant would be generous with the shrimp, scallops, calamari, and littlenecks. The linguine with clams ($17) also looked appealing, because there were littlenecks and chopped clams, plus a double bonus of Italian sausage and arugula.