CARPACCIO TRATTORIA opened three months ago at the storied northeast corner of NE MLK and Fremont, and in not-so-hushed tones it was wondered if the bold and flashy launch could exorcise the ghosts of former inhabitants Belly and Terroir. Italian-born chef Francesco Solda had arrived from Venice by way of a celebrity-tinged tour of duty in Los Angeles—yet Carpaccio Trattoria rented no Klieg lights, because his charm and enthusiasm were of superior wattage. He was here to add to our city's showcase of regional Italian specialists—peddling Venetian risotto, catfish, and squid—and if there were any lingering ghosts, they would quickly be fried by the whites of his dazzling teeth.
Or so it was hoped. This comfortable and inviting space has hit its stride and found its audience*, but the food lacks refinement. With nearly every dish, it felt like the emperor had been ill informed of the state of his attire.
The fried calamari appetizer ($15) at first appears to be a generous and imaginative thing, with the interesting additions of fried dates, lemon, zucchini, smelt, eel, eggplant, kingly shrimp, and plump sea scallops. Unfortunately, these things do not cook at similar times and temperatures, and the namesake item does not crisp well. I dread sending dishes back—I won't unless they are actively on fire and threatening to spread—but when the waitress noticed me sadly examining a floppy and sodden disc of eggplant, and said they'd happily drop another basket, I acquiesced. I listened to the next batch fry away, this time simply longer than the last, and could not refuse the kindly proffered yet overcooked and (still) under-crisped replacement.
The Tuscan fava beans salad ($7), with pear, fennel, and pecorino, was another overcompensation of size for quality and concept. A massive ring of unflavored, dried fava beans sat atop a similarly bland bed of shaved fennel, and someone with a flair for color had put some sliced pear next to it. The dish was leaden, daunting, and perhaps best summed up by my date, who simply said, "No woman can feel sexy eating this." The burrata ($16), with tender roasted pancetta, arugula (the menu says basil), and tomatoes, is much better, but the menu should note that it serves three or four, as it contains about a pound of slightly sour imported Italian cheese.
The entrée of catfish ravioli ($15), stuffed with large morsels of flavorful fish, Taleggio† cheese, and arugula, is a signature item. They are ravioloni, giant things the size of sliced bread, two to a plate and smothered in a simple, garlicky sauce of whole and crushed cherry tomatoes. Undressed they would be pleasing to any catfish lover: The firm, earthy meat is a good match for the similarly distinctive cheese. However, the big acidity of the sauce masks this clever combination.
Solda's pride and joy is clearly his risottos; there are five on the menu (all are $14). They are prepared in the Venetian style of all'onda—"on the wave"—meaning they are loose, like a thick soup. The squid ink and herb version is delicious and fragrant, al dente, and not at all chalky or fishy. Sadly, a version with zucchini, fried sage, and sweetbreads arrived without the sage, and the chopped zucchini did not justify its bulk with noticeable flavor. The two large sweetbreads were well trimmed and fried, though, with a creamy texture and satisfying offal richness.
At the close of the meal, another issue stood out: the payment system. Carpaccio's waiters run your credit card tableside with an iPad—which they hold for you while you sign with your finger—meaning it is impossible to tap the screen and add a tip without the waiter immediately seeing the amount. This breaches a relatively sacred privacy, and uncomfortably encourages over-tipping.
Many things are done well, despite that raking. Solda's handmade pasta has excellent chew and texture. The staff are professional and friendly, children are treated well, and Solda himself is a beacon of hospitality in the space's abundant positive energy. An acoustic intimacy surrounds the tables even when the restaurant is full, which seems to be often. But the menu meanders insecurely from its Venetian inspiration to a please-everybody patchwork of safe plays and arugula, and the diner senses no leader to believe in. To keep the ghosts at bay, Carpaccio must be more of where it came from, and less of where it wound up.
* White people who are 55.
† Taleggio is a ripened cheese with a lot of personality—think of a brie that needs a blast of Tinactin, and you are close to the mark.
Dinner Sun-Thurs 4-10 pm, Fri-Sat 4-11 pm. Full bar. Happy hour is daily 4-8 pm with 14 $6 (or less) menu items and $3-5 drinks.