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Trattoria Aroma: Rustic, Local and Hip

Trattoria Aroma on Bryant Street in Buffalo is an Italian Restaurant where full-blooded Italians can find traditional dishes they are familiar with, and the rest of the populace can experience Italian food the authentic way, not necessarily the way much of America has learned to accept it.
Here, handmade pasta is dressed lightly, not as a conveyance for sauce, but rather complemented by it so that the flavors and textures work in union.  In every dish, expect flavor combinations that reflect the local growing season, where the bounty of the nearby country is brought to the elegance of the city. 
This old concept of sourcing the best local providers of food is something America is just now relearning, but already, Trattoria Aroma has made an art of it.  Under the direction of Chef Keith Dulak Aroma makes their own pastas, sausage and breads, but then there is the cheese brought in from Lapp Farm in Cassadaga; pork, veal and eggs from Blossom Hill Farm in Gowanda; biodynamic produce and maple syrup from Oles Farm in Alden; hydroponic fruits and vegetables from H2Grow Farm in Lewiston, fruit from Tower Farms in Youngstown; and hormone-free beef from Raisin Acres in Franklinville.

For Trattoria diners, this means enjoyment of the best of all worlds, including the Old World, where owners Jerry Clementi and David Cosentino go to hone their “cucina rustica” recipe savvy and source the wines they are known for.  Mad about Tuscany, the two go all over Italy twice per year, and often bring a Buffalo tour contingent with them – something they started when they were just a little cafe in Williamsville.  According to General Manager Breen Shea, David and Jerry’s familiarity with the natives of Tuscany and nearby towns and villages gives the brothers-in-law buying power that not every American has.

Shea (yes, that Shea family) is a young man who not only grew up in the restaurant business, he grew up living above The 3rd Rail, a restaurant his father owned in Vermont.  Having worked the family business, gone off to Napa as a chef, and worked his way to the front of the house, Shea has a knack for getting all of the right people amassed to get the job done right at Trattoria.  With very little turnover, you will see waiters from way back in the Williamsville days, and plenty of fresh new faces as the Aroma holdings grow. 

Shea speaks of Trattoria’s evolution as a restaurant and says that sourcing local is something warmer weather climates have done for a long time.  “But,” he adds, “it’s not a problem here. New York State has fed New York City for years.”  Well studied in local farming, Shea proffers a fun anecdote about the difference between organic and biodynamic growing, as explained to him by the owner of Oles Farm, who says that organic growing “amounts to a lot of red tape more than anything,” while biodynamic works on a chain of events.  “You import the moth that attracts the bird that eats the worm that eats the tomato,” Shea says.  Hence, a disease free, chemical free, safe tomato.

As part of buying local, Shea says that the farmers are eager to please, and they modify their offerings to Trattoria’s needs.  “This summer, anything out west that sucks water is going to skyrocket,” he says.  “Not to mention the contamination from the runoff.  Everybody’s going to get back to sourcing locally.  We get to know the farmers, we tell them what we want.”

After a starter of Insalata Caprese, with H2Grow tomatoes, Aroma-grown basil, and Lapp mozzarella, we enjoyed the Roasted Asparagus Spears, which was so much more than roasted veggies, with a Blossom Hill sunny-side up egg, Parma prosciutto and shaved parmesan and truffle oil.  

The Littleneck Clams are the only thing we had at Trattoria that wasn’t local, but they could have been a meal unto themselves.  Many more clams than you would think to eat by yourself as an appetizer, the lemon and parsley brodo the clams swam in was hard to let go of.  Half a loaf of house made bread, and we would have been too full to go any further.  Luckily, we’d run out of bread, so we were ready for the rest…

Next came the Lobster Ravioli.  The handmade pasta at Trattoria is the perfect thickness; it’s heartier than a crepe, thin enough to put store-bought to shame, and worthy enough to hold the lobster and creamy marscapone filling.  The fried leeks that dressed the dish, in combination with a brandy cream sauce were sublime.  The sauce was not too rich, but dressed the ravioli nicely.  This is another thing Trattoria understands well; sauce is not used to obscure a dish, and pasta is not meant to be a conveyance for the sauce.  The balance was perfect.

So too with the Pappardelle Bolognese.  This is a hungry person’s dish in which the noodles probably could have been run through the roller set down one notch – but I enjoyed the excess of thickness because it stood up so well to the ragu of beef, pork and veal.  This is the sort of dish that would have lit up my grandfather’s eyes after a hard day in the garden – very satisfying in weight and flavor.

The Blossom Hill Pork Chop Salerno, served over Oles potatoes, was a star.  Stuffed with apples, spinach, gorgonzola and housemade focaccia, and topped with maple butter, it was so very succulent and flavorful.  Shea came by and encouraged us to eat the fat too.  He wasn’t kidding.  The crispy fat, rolled in a puddle of the maple butter is something we wouldn’t eat every day, but we’re glad we didn’t miss it.  This chop was meant to be eaten in total, and we did.

We enjoyed a Salviano Turlo Rosso, the kind of fat, jammy red we love.  Made with Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot grapes, it had deep, red fruit flavors. Shea explained that it came from a vineyard on which there stands an old castle, and that the wine is stored in the catacombs below, which only made it better.  Because of Vino Aroma, a wine store owned by  Cosentino and Clementi, the staff of Trattoria is well versed in wine, along with knowing interesting backstories when they exist.

The desserts, along with the pastry chef who created them, were truly a treat.  Daniella Vanoni (top image) is the young, innovative, totally awesome pastry chef at Trattoria who, according to Breen, was snapped up immediately after her tryout.  Vanoni went from the Culinary Institute of America to a cake maker in New York City, and landed right at Trattoria after she returned to her native Lewiston.

The Chocolate Strata (trans: layers) was chocolatey enough, without being overpowering.  Think about this – the moist brownie, the flaky phyllo, the creamy gelato, the crispy chocolate-sesame-almond tuile!  The construction was as impressive as the combinations of tastes and textures.

Lastly, you only think you’ve had a good Berry Tart unless you’ve had Vanoni’s. One of my all-time favorite desserts, I never knew what I was missing until I tasted this creation.  Again, and as with the pasta, a berry tart shouldn’t be just a conveyance for the berries.  This one was exciting from the berries, right down to the plate.  The sweet pie crust was the best I’ve ever h
ad, but the real surprise was the custard made with heavy cream, marscapone and powdered sugar.  It wasn’t so much the ingredients, which are common to the dessert, but the way Vanoni blended them to create the loose and creamy filling so that the cream clung to each berry.  When in season, the tart is made with berries from Tower Farms.

Not normally a lover of white wines, I tried a Sartori Ferdi 2007 from the Venito region.  It was very crisp and good, despite a momentary initial sweetness.  Made solely with Garganega grape, this particular wine is the epitome of what Shea was talking about when he said Cosentino and Clementi have buying power abroad. “This is exclusively Italian,” he said.  “Exactly 25 cases came to the state, and we have 95 percent of them.”

At the end of dinner, I asked Shea to join us.  He asked if I liked whiskey, I answered positively, and he brought out a Tuthilltown 4-Grain that the New York Times calls “Virtually impossible to find.”  The Hudson Valley, NY, distiller was one of the first entrepreneurs to jump on the new laws a few years back that allowed for distilling hard liquors in New York State, and his offerings are the ultimate in small batch boutique brews.  Even the packaging is irresistible.  The whiskey was extremely good, but when Shea brought out the dark, syrupy rum, it became my instant favorite.  This is the rum you imagine pirates drink.

It’s amazing what the local boys at Trattoria have done for the city, creating an elegant restaurant, where diners can go casual and not break the bank.  But when you step back and look at their reach – the fact that they have relationships with local farms and ties all the way to Tuscany – it’s an even more outstanding accomplishment. 

“We owe it to our customers to get the best,” Shea says.    

Trattoria Aroma – 307 Bryant – Buffalo, NY 14222 – 716.881.7592

(Note: Tony Galla, whose music is featured in the slideshow, is homegrown too!)

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