Chef/owner Paula Frazier is not just at Rigoletto, the restaurant she bought in 2003 before adding her name to the sign outside. She can seem to be the entire staff (though she isn’t). It’s Paula who calls to confirm your reservation; Paula who answers the phone and guides your wayward taxi to the restaurant; Paula who shops the local markets daily and makes the menu. She may even pull up a chair at your table after dinner for a shot of Sambuca on the house.
The room is cozy and softly lit, and Paula has a knack for working it—something she may have picked up from the public figures in her past, including Martha Stewart, for whom she styled food, and Bruce Springsteen, for whom she spent two years as a private chef.
The simplicity of her cooking and careful sourcing of ingredients is more authentically Italian than what you’ll find in many Italian restaurants. A medley of roasted winter vegetables—butternut squash, parsnips, celery root, fennel, carrots, red peppers, and onion—were infused with sage, their earthy flavor perfectly offset by a roundel of cool, herbed goat cheese on crostini. Fresh, plump mussels answered a reveille of crushed red peppers in the customary broth of white wine and tomatoes. Grilled eggplant alla Napoletana layered with ricotta and pecorino was smoky, sweet, and doused with a delicious spicy marinara.
Paula trades heavily on that fine marinara, which rescued a dish of overbreaded and oily fried calamari. Another excellent tomato sauce with even more heat completed an excellent bucatini alla amatriciana with crispy nuggets of pancetta, onion, and pecorino. Pappardelle alla Bolognese was respectable, but the sauce lacked the depth of flavor the best versions achieve. Tricolor tortellini al prosciutto buried under a decadent Parmesan cream sauce studded with the salty meat, was a little overwhelming. Pastas are available as half portions and should be ordered that way. Half portions are generous, leaving room for the entrées, which are not to be missed.
Fish is exceedingly fresh and wisely unadorned. Crispy sautéed tilapia and delicately broiled red snapper were both topped simply with butter infused with fresh parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. Both dishes were accompanied by excellent sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes.
The menu brims with veal dishes, but the best was the simplest—scallopina al limone sautéed in lemon juice and white wine for the perfect touch of acidity. The best item on the menu is one you’ll have to ask for—Steak, Paula Style, available as an occasional special and on request. A 12-ounce New York strip is crusted around the edges with cracked black pepper, grilled to perfection, and finished with a dollop of the same wonderful butter Paula uses on fish. It’s a bargain at $26.
Desserts (made by Paula, naturally) are simple. A rich flourless chocolate-hazelnut cake was precisely balanced between sweet and bitter, served atop crème anglaise and a little caramel. Panna cotta was textbook in texture. It’s a perfect testament to Paula’s unfussy, adept cooking. Good enough for the Boss, good enough for me.Click here to leave a comment