Pulling off Lake Murray Blvd. into the Lake Murray Village shopping center, Antica Trattoria is almost easy to miss. The restaurant's facade mirrors that of neighboring businesses, and the dark wood roof, modest sign, and entrance beneath a sheltered walkway certainly don’t stand out. Stepping inside, however, it is clear that the space is charmingly unique, a one-of-a-kind neighborhood restaurant that simultaneously makes guests feel at home and whisks them off to faraway lands.
A small bar backed by a wall of wine bottles draws guests in, taking over one side of a small, intimate dining room. Walls are painted muted shades of tan and taupe, and a high ceiling reveals exposed wood beams painted a similar muted tan. Elegant pendant lights infuse the high-ceilinged space with a soft glow, while carpeting helps keep the noise level low. Tables set for two and four are peppered throughout the cozy space, each covered in simple white linens.
Seated at a table near the front of the room, I immediately feel welcome and at ease. The space is rustic and cozy, the decor simple and unpretentious. A mural on the back wall depicts a hillside vista, while a framed oil painting brings a stunning view of the Siena countryside. Between the two oversized murals, smaller framed paintings depict more Italian landscapes, including owner Francisco Basile's native Sicily. A back wall offers a window into the kitchen, where beneath polished copper pots, I catch a glimpse of staff members scurrying to and fro.
Service is quick and friendly, and I soon find a wine list and menu in my hand. The wine selection is concise but well-chosen, with an array of about 50 Italian and Californian bottles. The list leans red—about two thirds of the selection—with over half of the wines coming from Italy. The reasonably priced selection includes nearly 20 wines offered by the glass, none creeping over the $7.50 mark. Enticed by the by-the-glass selection, I opt for a Valpolicella from Villa Borghetti, a light, fruit-forward wine from the Veneto region that promises to be quite food friendly. The glass arrives simultaneously with a basket of warm bread, whose thick slices and crusty texture convince me I am in Italy. Already transported, I turn to the menu.
Antica Trattoria's menu is packed with an eclectic and enticing array of antipasti, pastas, and main courses. Executive Chef and Owner Francesco Basile developed the menu, aiming to bring guests an inspired combination of Italian classics alongside unique, more inventive creations. He changes the menu about twice a year, offering lighter dishes during hot summer months, and warm, comforting creations during the fall and winter.
I begin with a stunning appetizer that evokes the Sicilian landscape. The Melenzane al Caprino is a cold antipasti dish, featuring thin slices of cooked and chilled eggplant topped with a medley of diced tomatoes and basil, and drizzled with fresh olive oil. The plate is garnished with a syrup-like balsamic reduction and accented with small pieces of crostini, each boasting a paper-thin layer of goat cheese. The first bite is both intriguing and refreshing, the resonant, smoky eggplant mingling with the fresh, vibrant basil and tomato. The accompanying crostini are crisp and comforting, the bites of tangy goat cheese clearing the palate between forkfuls of eggplant. The chilled dish captivates and satisfies, and I imagine myself enjoying it in a quaint trattoria after a day exploring Sicily's seaside towns.
The Mozzarella Caprese demonstrates Chef Basile's attention to detail. The simple, classic combination of mozzarella and tomatoes is here executed to perfection, with uniform slices of fresh buffalo mozzarella and large, ripe tomatoes layered atop one another in a tightly arranged ring. The center of the form is crowned by sliced roasted red peppers, gently draped in a nest-like formation. Extra virgin olive oil is drizzled atop and around the caprese, while a barely detectable layer of coarsely ground saltis scattered across the plate. A bite is fresh and familiar, although the smoky flavor of roasted red peppers lends a hint of intrigue.
It is hard to stay away from the pasta section of the menu, as one dish after another tempts the palate with an intriguing combination of flavors. There are a good number of vegetarian selections, as well as dishes that incorporate seafood, veal, and meat. While there is an entire selection of entrees—options include classic dishes such as chicken marsala, veal parmesan, and sea bass in a lemon buerre blanc—it is tempting to make a meal of the pasta alone.
I begin with the Gnocchi Caprese, a dish featuring house-made potato dumplings in a fresh tomato sauce, topped with arugula and fresh buffalo mozzarella. The dish is a playful extension of the caprese salad, the cooked tomato sauce adding a savory dimension to the traditional cold dish. The first bite reveals the perfection of the preparation—each pillowy gnocchi perfectly fills the mouth, imparting a sensual mouth eel and slowly dissolving into luxury. The supple forms are boasted by the luxurious tomato sauce, which seems an ideal balance of tangy and creamy. The sauce and the gnocchi would be enjoyable alone, but the brilliant finish of shredded arugula leaves and fresh mozzarella elevates the dish, the ricotta lending a peppery kick and the mozzarella a cooling creaminess. Plush and sensual, with an elegant twist, this is comfort food at its best.
The Farfalle Al Portobello is another vegetarian option that is alluring and satisfying, even for a meat-lover. The dish is pale and pure in contrast to the vibrant tomato sauce that precedes it. A pale white cream sauce clings to bowtie pasta shapes, peppered with dark slivers of portobello mushroom, green cross-sections of asparagus, and brick-red sundried tomatoes. It is an instant favorite. The lush brandy cream sauce is rich and comforting, yet kept from becoming too ethereal by bursts of earthy freshness from the vegetable medley. The ingredients mingle in perfect harmony, both in proportion and in flavor, with the woodsy richness of the mushrooms in cream tempered by the sharp tang of tomato and the crisp grassiness of asparagus slivers. Simultaneously elegant and decadent, the dish is one that lingers in my mind long after the meal ends.
Lest we get carried away with Chef Basile's stunning vegetarian creations, we turn to the Penne all' Antica, a dish named for the restaurant and one that showcases Basile's deft hand and creative impulse stunningly. Perfectly cooked spears of Penne mingle with half moons of Italian sausage, julienned zucchini, and sundried tomatoes in an enticing red sauce that at first looks like tomato but turns out to be so much more. The sauce is a mixture of veal stock and sherry, a combination that lends an elusive, savory backbone and a silky, yet subtly complex mouthfeel. Unlike a bold tomato sauce, this underlies, rather than overshadows the ingredients, ensuring each bite brings a medley of flavors and a discovery of tastes. The sausage is feisty and peppery, while the zucchini sweet and moist. As in the farfalle dish, here the sundried tomatoes offer a perfect hint of piquancy, leaving the palate wanting more.
Alas, while my palate is eager, my stomach is sated by the generous portions and hearty flavors. A house-made cannoli provides a perfect finale, a simple, perfectly executed combination of delicate, crisp shell and sugary ricotta filling. A bite is classic and satisfying, the nutty, crisp caseing bursting under the pressure of the fork, the granular texture of the ricotta peppered with decadent chocolate chips. I find myself taking smaller and smaller bites, hoping to prolong the meal and postpone my departure. As I take the final bite I suddenly wish I lived much closer to this gem of a restaurant.