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Nurturing Appetite

Trattoria Della Famiglia's cuisine and charm are close to perfect--but the food is not cheap

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Italy's a big country, with so many regional and local cuisines that the term "Italian food" is nearly meaningless. Hard to say what Italian food is, unless you want to point to a set of ideas about the value of lightness, highest-quality ingredients and allegiance to traditional preparations.

Trattoria Della Famiglia, a family-owned restaurant hidden away in a strip mall on Oracle Road (northeast corner of Oracle and Rudasill Road), pretty much surveys the whole peninsula with dishes ranging from spaghetti con vongole, a Neapolitan classic, to polenta, which people only eat in the north. The place gives the impression, though, of having its heart in Tuscany and Umbria: When you step into the comfortable, unpretentious room with its black-and-white checked tablecloths, terra cotta walls and traditional pottery, you really could be in a trattoria in the center of Italy. Warm, kindly service adds to the impression.

On a recent visit, we started with the antipasto della casa ($14.95), a plateful of small servings of more than a dozen cold vegetable dishes. (These are displayed encouragingly on a table just inside the front door.) Like everything at Trattoria Della Famiglia, it seemed a bit pricey, but the many tastes of savory, light things turned out to be a terrific way to start the meal. (The marinated artichoke hearts and braised fennel were especially good.) Italians understand that hunger is the best sauce, and view appetite as something to be treasured, nurtured, cared for. What's the point of a greasy, heavy appetizer that ruins your appetite for the good things to come?

Taste buds primed, we ordered from the large menu, which is divided into primi and secondi piatti (first and second courses). Primi piatti are generally pastas, soups and other light dishes, while secondi piatti are typically meat or fish. (The courses evolved from the Renaissance banquet's boiled and fried courses. I'm cribbing freely here from Giuliano Bugialli's The Fine Art of Italian Cooking.) It's nice to see a menu arranged in traditional Italian fashion, but portions--and prices--at Trattoria Della Famiglia reflect American expectations. There was no way we could have managed both courses with servings so large.

Our friend Susan ordered the pollo alle melanzane (chicken with eggplant, $18.95), while her husband, Richard, had the paillard di vitello (veal cutlet, $23.95). Ed had the fish of the day, sea bass with tomatoes, capers and onions ($26.95), while I had maiale di chef ($20.95)--pork tenderloin with artichokes. Conversation stopped as we tucked into our uniformly excellent main dishes, which we washed down with the house rosso, a lovely, soft Chianti ($25 a liter). My pork, pounded thin and succulent in a bath of butter, wine, capers and who knows what other nice things, was absolutely delicious, and there was so much of it that I took half home. It was just as good straight out of the refrigerator the next day.

The sides, however, were uneven. Susan's polenta was scrumptious, but Richard's risotto was bland and watery, while the oven-roasted potatoes that Ed and I ordered seemed to have been reheated. Every kitchen has to negotiate a series of compromises between perfect preparation and time constraints, but roasted potatoes--a simple and absolutely characteristic Tuscan preparation--cannot successfully be reheated: The miraculous affinity of potatoes and fat only holds for the first few moments out of the oven or fryer. Then the potatoes get mealy, and the magic is gone.

(You can try this at home. Take some baking potatoes--leave the skin on--and halve them lengthwise. Cut into long, angular strips, then into roughly pyramid-shaped, bite-sized pieces. Toss with lots of olive oil, chopped fresh rosemary, chile flakes and plenty of salt and pepper; bang into a very hot oven and roast, turning once in a while, until golden brown. Fantastic.)

Dessert was lovely. Richard's almond/strawberry cake ($8.95) made him very happy, and I adored my macedonia di frutta ($7.95), a bowl of chopped mixed fruit and berries macerated with wine, a little sugar and citrus juice. Juicy, cold and not too sweet, it was the perfect dessert for a June night in Tucson. Ed and I eyed the half-dozen grappas--a good selection of grappa is another sign of a serious Italian restaurant--but resisted. We had a long drive home.

The bill was a breathtaking $230 for the four of us, and for that kind of money, in Tucson, I expect perfection. Trattoria Della Famiglia is close to perfect for the sort of place it is--and I have to say, we had a wonderful time--but it's not quite there. (Those potatoes. That risotto.) A few adjustments, though, and I wouldn't squeak about the check.

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