Restaurant Review: La Fontanella

Sparse use of red sauce and a wine list with Croatian selections make this Italian eatery anything but typical

A Candlelit Cocoon of Good Taste
Sparse use of red sauce and a wine list with Croatian selections make this Italian eatery anything but typical.

 

My friend, Rich, was visiting a week before my reservation at La Fontanella, and said the place sounded familiar. His parents might have been there once. He recalled their assessment: “casual, typical pasta, red sauce, very good.” So come the next week, my dinner guests and I dressed down.

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Mistake. One heave of the large double doors and the soggy night morphed into a candlelit cocoon. The gracious, impeccably tuxedoed host escorted us past sponged butter-cream-colored walls, frosted glass sconces and milky linens. There wasn’t a red sauce in sight. Rich’s parents were zero for three, with one recollection to go, the “very good” part. I crossed my fingers: One out of four would be exquisite.

 

We were seated and immediately coddled with a robust platter of olives, garlicky sopressata and chunks of Parmagiana reggiano. Our luck was holding. The waitress recited the evening’s specials with regal aplomb: pepper-crusted swordfish over balsamic reduction, charcoal-grilled whole branzino (a Mediterranean sea bass), lamb osso buco, homemade fettuccine with shellfish in lobster sauce… That one out of four was looking better and better.

 

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The menu teemed with homemade pastas, seafood and meats, but I’ll usually go for the specials, and always for the fish. Branzino and grilled calamari—an appetizer special—it would be. I’ve never seen Croatians hobnobbing with Californians and Italians on a wine list, but there they were. I would have tried one had my husband, the connoisseur, not insisted on a decadently full-bodied Super-Tuscan.

 

Glasses filled, palates primed, we greedily surveyed our appetizers. Colors whirled off snow-white plates: the vivid green of crabmeat-stuffed avocado, the scarlet of red pepper coulis over baked oysters. My calamari were four perfectly grilled cylinders set on a wilted red-leaf lettuce bed amidst spokes of endive in a peppery balsamic vinaigrette. Not a rubbery squid ring to be found. Shrimp Perignon were giddy with flavor in their Champagne sauce, nuzzling tomato and shitakes in a flirty sauté. I adore avocado in any guise—this one, with crabmeat, capers and good olive oil—was no exception.

 

As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that should come between me and an oyster is a few drops of lemon, and the Ostriche Royale oysters with smoked salmon and bacon in a Champagne sauce did nothing to change my mind. Yes, the oysters were tender and fresh, but the red pepper coulis smothered their flavor, along with every other ingredient’s.

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If I decry La Fontanella’s treatment of oysters, I laud that of their scallops. The ones in the fettuccine special were ethereal pillows of flavor, sautéed with chubby baby shrimps in a delicate tomato-lobster sauce. Manicotti stuffed with cheeses and spinach was, if not ethereal, certainly respectable.

 

Well-cooked pasta is one thing, well-grilled whole fish quite another. It burns, it tears, it overcooks. My branzino did none of them. Charcoal-grilled to a glistening mahogany, deftly boned for me tableside, the flesh was moist, the flavor smoky, the texture firm. Plus the fish was served with electric rows of blazing carrots, stoplight-green asparagus and emerald broccoli, all firm and beautifully tender. Only the swath of mashed potatoes was disappointing: oversalted on top, undersalted on bottom.

 

Osso buco should be braised to exalted death, and La Fontanella’s shank was. The sauce, though, was pedestrian bland, a misfortune for which the plate’s excellent gnocchi couldn’t compensate. The night’s only other misfortune concerned my friend Perry—not his lusty rosemary-garlic-sausage chicken scarpariello, but his head, which got knocked twice by a waiter serving the table behind him.

 

With one waiter it’s hell, with another, heaven. The one who concocted my zabaglione dessert tableside did the work of angels, whisking sweet marsala and a touch of Champagne into heated egg yolks and pouring the frothy cloud over the sweetest of berries. Our other dessert was less glorious: a too-sweet, too-spongy, too-cold ricotta cheesecake. Stick with the zabaglione and a cup of their full-bodied coffee, and that one out of four is a winner.

 

LA FONTANELLA

 

115 Wolf’s Lane, Pelham

(914) 738-3008

 

HOURS: 

Lunch, Mon. to Fri. 12-3 pm

Dinner, Mon. to Fri. 5-10 pm, Sat. 5-11 pm, Sun. 1-10 pm

 

PRICES:

Appetizers: $6-9

Entrées: $17-24

Desserts: $6

(specials may be higher)

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