There should be little doubt in anyone's mind that pasta has become much more than just a side dish or bland fare for an inexpensive night on the town. Several converging trends have forged a formidable gastronomic force that is altering restaurant menus all across America - the health value of pasta's complex carbohydrates, the escalating interest in the cooking of the Mediterranean region and an equally intense rediscovery of the joy and versatility of Italian cuisine that makes Chef Boyardee look like Alfred E. Newman.
Unfortunately, quite a few of the dining public are not quite as tuned into the details of these emerging trends as are the current crop of "foodies," armed with Cuisinarts and subscriptions to Gourmet, who seem right at home eating raw flowers in salads and distinguishing between virgin and extra virgin olive oil. For the uninitiated or uninformed, a foray into a trendy restaurant can be like a visit to another planet.But both foodies and those aspiring to at least understand these trends can rub elbows comfortably at Fresco's, the elegant, pricey and inventive new Italian cafe that has replaced the dog-eared Afterwords in Sugar House.
Fresco's is one of several eateries (Park City's Riverhorse Cafe and the Park Cafe in Salt Lake, to name two) that combine the talents of executive chef Maurice Sainte Yves and restaurateurs David and Susan Harries. We were prepared to sample a bill of fare that would be both familiar yet foreign.
Fresco's interior is small and well-organized. While tables are close, we did not feel cramped. We were close enough, nonetheless, to eavesdrop on other diners' comments, review other waiters' explanations and see what other people were eating. While I don't recommend turning into the Snoop Sisters upon entering Fresco's, it wouldn't hurt - the menu is in Italian.
Our waiter helped with the translations, which expanded well beyond the simple English descriptions that accompany the squibs on the menu. It also prevented us from being seduced by the romantic names of the different dishes. Spiedini di Gamberi e Prosciutto ($15.95) just sounds more appetizing than broiled shrimps and Italian ham.
As it turned out, our waiter recommended the lasagne del giorno ($10.95) or lasagne of the day. After all the ingredients and preparations of the various dishes are explained, from balsamic vinegar and extra virgin oil to pesto and other herbs, we were, in spite of our "foodie" training, suffering from an information overload. We almost reluctantly went with the familiar. He reassured us, though, in a break of character, that the lasagne was "killer."
The lasagne was indeed "killer." It was layers of wonderfully cooked pasta, prosciutto, pine nuts and eggplant covered with a freshly strained tomato sauce livened with red peppers. It was complemented by a grating of dry cheese, applied by the waiter.
The other entree we sampled was the cacciuco ($12.50), bay scallops, tiny shrimp, mussels and chunks of mild fish stewed in a rich seafood broth and ladled over pasta. Like the appetizers, a luxurious mushroom and barley soup ($3.25) and an antipasti selection ($6.95) of cold eggplant draped with roasted and peeled peppers in a mild dressing, it was wonderfully prepared.
The dinner price included a salad, a mix of greens that included radicchio as well as several green lettuces. It was topped with a trendy as well as flavorful nasturtium and a very good house dressing. We also devoured two baskets of Pierre's French bread, which is served with sweet cream butter.
A variety of desserts are served, including fresh fruit and cheese ($4.75), chocolate torte with pressed berries, lemon mousse ($2.50) and pies and cakes ($3.25). We split the fresh berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries) with sabayon ($5.95), a rich, thin pudding made from egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine.
Other selections include salsiccia con patate ($5.50), slices of garlic sausages with potato in a lemon butter sauce (a dish we enjoyed at the Riverhorse), cold pasta salads ($4.95), and insalata di mare ($5.95), a seafood medley sauteed with garlic, lemon, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
Pollo alla griglia ($10.95), grilled boneless breast of chicken marinated with vinegar, lemon, garlic, and rosemary, involtini di pollo ($12.95), chicken breast stuffed with Italian ham, cheese, fresh herbs, garlic and butter sauce; scottato di filetto alla pizzaiola ($13.50), slices of tenderloin sauteed with sweet peppers, tomato, garlic and herbs; and bocconcini di manzo allo zafferano ($12.50), braised sirloin tips with leeks, thyme and saffron, are regularly offered dinner entrees.
A less pricey though imaginative luncheon menu is offered midday along with daily specials for both luncheon and dinner.
Fresco Italian Cafe offers an original cuisine that Salt Lake diners should appreciate. Some of the preparations and ingredients might seem a bit foreign when compared to many of the area's other Italian restaurants. But Fresco's exceptional taste and craftsmanship will make diners feel at ease.
Fresco Italian Cafe, 1513 S. 15th East, 586-1300. Lunch served from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; dinner served from 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. Accepts major credit cards and checks with guarantee card. Reservations strongly recommended for dinner.
- NOTE: Why Salt Lake City doesn't have a New York-style delicatessen is a question I have been hard pressed to answer over the years. After all, we seem to have almost every other imaginable kind of restaurant.
But the Upper Crust is now serving REAL New York (actually Brooklyn) cornbeef and pastrami sandwiches as well as Kosher hot dogs and sour pickles, also from the New York area. Upper Crust co-owner, David Schrieber, whose family hails from New York, explained on our recent visit that having New York restaurant connections "really helped." (I remember trying to explain Sen. Orrin Hatch's defense of Ollie North to an obviously liberal and irate New York deli owner as I cashed a travelers check on a trip last summer. He was more sympathetic when I told him we have a few Democrats, but no delis.)
The sandwiches, served on pumpernickel and accompanied by a wonderful cole slaw and pickle, cost $4.75. These are part of the Upper Crust's new dinner menu, in addition to their regular deli case offerings. Diners of all political persuasions are welcome.