The grand Italian restaurant is a particularly seductive dining cliché. There's no other type of fine dining so chronicled in popular culture, so nostalgia-inducing, so easy to love — who doesn't want to eat at a place that simultaneously conjures the Rat Pack, Italian grandmothers and The Sopranos? The black-and-white photos on the walls, the sounds of Sinatra crooning — just look at the empire Maggiano's has built by peddling this fantasy, along with copious servings of garlic bread and cheesy pasta.
Trattoria Neapolis, the new temple to Italian grandiosity in Pasadena, takes this legacy and drapes it with spangles, chandeliers and opulence. The restaurant is all about the whoosh of its first impression: impossibly high ceilings; wrought-iron balconies; big, comfy booths; a mirrored bar; an open kitchen with a pizza oven. Trattoria Neapolis gets that sweeping, grand-restaurant thing exactly right, taking the nostalgic model and modernizing it just enough by amping up the romance and toning down the shtick.
Trattoria Neapolis is a project from Pasadena native Perry Vidalakis, a businessman with a culinary degree who has been fantasizing about this restaurant for 10 years. And when the time came, Vidalakis brought on a bunch of heavyweights to make his dream a reality. One literal heavyweight — a 7,000-pound, Neapolitan, wood-burning oven. But also heavyweight designers and consultants: The space is by Hatch Design Group; the cocktail program, by Vincenzo Marianella, who has been mixologist at Valentino, Copa d'Oro and Providence. The winner of many awards, he's the head of a cocktail consulting business.
The chef, Bryant Wigger, previously worked at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles and, before that, as chef at the Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons San Diego. His aspirations here are Four Seasons–large — he aims to present modernized, upscale Italian food. Press materials claim a combination of Italian and Californian sensibilities. Don't expect eggplant Parm or cheesy, red sauce–laden pastas, and don't expect chain-restaurant pricing. The meatballs have pine nuts and currants in them; the tiramisu is full of pears and caramel; and the prices fall in line with the ostentatious looks and ambitions of the place. Vidalakis and Wigger are looking to create a destination restaurant.
The success story on this menu is undoubtedly the pizzas. With toppings like house-made lamb sausage, rapini and roasted sweet peppers, the pizzas are a nice approximation of the Neapolitan form: the crust thin and slightly charred, with a pleasing tang and pull. This isn't pizza that will change your life, but as lunch for one or a shared appetizer for the table, it serves its purpose nicely.
From there, the fantasy begins to crumble. Nothing at Trattoria Neapolis is terrible, but many dishes struggle with blandness and identity. The combination of Italy and California works on paper but not as well in practice. Confusion sets in: Is this feel-good, old-school, Italian comfort food or is it more refined? Either would be great — it's the murky middle ground that doesn't work.
And so panzanella, instead of being that boisterous, juicy, crunchy salad we know and love, comes as a small mound of avocado, tomato and moist bread with a slightly smoky vinaigrette. It's not bad, but the transition away from tradition hasn't done the dish any favors. Minestra Romana, the Romanian version of minestrone, lacks salt and veers toward downright blandness. This is a problem for pastas as well: both the bucatini and the spaghettini lack enough punch to get you through a bowl. Rigatoni with short rib Bolognese was on the too-stiff side of al dente, and the sauce was a little dry as well.
There's a timidity to some of the cooking here, the sense that the food should be modern but not too modern, or rustic but not quite homespun enough to get down to that deep, satisfying place the best rustic Italian takes us to. Roast chicken with cacciatore barley risotto is almost too clever for its own good — the cacciatore and barley become just tangy tomato glop when forced into a risotto. And arancini, in both of the forms I tried (lobster and squash) were as good as you'd expect from gooey cheese and rice and rich ingredients fried into balls: good, but in an opulent stoner kind of way.
The best dishes on the menu were actually the ones that felt most New American. Alaskan halibut with pancetta and charred corn was cooked beautifully and presented with fresh ingredients with just the right amount of salt and fat from the pancetta. A jumble of roasted garlic gnocchi with pulled pork shoulder, roasted squash and dried apricots had enough variance in texture and flavor, and enough pops of fresh herbs, to make it the standout dish of all my visits. Veal scallopini is another place where the classic-Italian-with-a-modern-edge construct worked well. The veal was piled on the plate with Tuscan black kale, and the bitterness of the greens and the tender meat found focus with the brightness of lemon sofrito and lemon butter.
If there's a real triumph at Trattoria Neapolis, it's the beverage program. The cocktail list, which is being executed by Ken Baranda, has enormous breadth, from fun and fruity through weird and smoky. The classics aren't neglected, either, and it's nice to see serious attention given to a list this accommodating of all tastes. The wine list is serious but approachable, with California and Italy represented equally. There are some very cool geeky options available, like the Pistillo from producer Poderi San Lazzaro, an orange wine that's surprisingly food-friendly, available by the glass and, at $44 a bottle, affordable to boot.
Perhaps even more impressive than the cocktails or the wine is the beer selection, simply because it's so rare to have such serious consideration and space given to these types of beers in a restaurant setting. I was especially wowed by the Italian bottled beers. Try the 750ml bottle of Nora from Turin, brewed with ginger, myrrh and kamut grain, for a beautifully aromatic beer that's worthy of taking wine's place at a serious Italian meal.
For now, the best way to visit Trattoria Neapolis is to get a bite at the bar with a few drinks. You can marvel at the mirrored walls and fancy chandeliers, at the giant TVs on each side of the bar playing old Italian movies, and you can take advantage of the fantastic booze selection. You can have a pizza or something else that strikes you from the menu — if you're smart, the gnocchi.
Because while the idea of California-influenced Italian sounds nice, and in some cases might work, there's a sense that Trattoria Neapolis is trying to achieve too much, and not quite getting any one thing exactly right. If the kitchen were to choose a more focused direction, my guess is that the food would fall in line with the rest of this theatrical, ambitious venture.
TRATTORIA NEAPOLIS | 336 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena | (626) 792-3000 | trattorianeapolis.com | Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. | Full bar | Lot parking