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Thursday, May 26,2011

Rustic roots but sophisticated flair

By Clay Fong

Like its French counterpart, the bistro, the Italian trattoria typically refers to a less formal eatery than a full-tilt restaurant.

Menus and service are more informal than costlier spots in these humble venues, and the fare reflects a comforting, home-cooked sensibility influenced by rustic cooking. North Boulder’s Radda Trattoria, which describes itself as a Tuscan-styled neighborhood restaurant, succeeds in living up to its appellation.

An airy, bright location just steps away from Ideal Market, Radda’s only design fault is the hard interior surfaces that amplify conversations and other noise. At times I felt like Twin Peaks FBI Bureau Chief Gordon Cole while communicating with consigliere Keith, as I felt the need to strenuously amplify my voice here. Despite this drawback, the ambience evokes a modern yet rustic European sensibility accented with tile and natural building materials.

Salumi occupies pride of place on the starters menu, with prosciutto, salami, speck and mortadella being just a few of the meaty offerings. Visitors to Radda’s East Pearl sister, Mateo, won’t be surprised to see the familiar olives and frites also on tap. Salads range from starter to entrée portions, and there’s a wide array of pastas and artisan pizzas featuring such ingredients as Hazel Dell mushrooms and San Marzano tomatoes.

We started lunch with a $5 piccolo fritto, a mix of fried rock shrimp, zucchini and onion accompanied by aioli. This menu stalwart arrived piping hot with a delicate, lacy batter reminiscent of expertly crafted tempura. We received a generous portion, and Keith opined that for the money, this could be the best appetizer in town. What really made the dish stand out was the addition of thin, fried slices of lemon that offered both texture and tang, a winning complement to the shellfish’s clean flavor.

Keith’s entree was the $14 pollo al mattone, a brick-pressed chicken preparation dating back to the Etruscans. Two things can go wrong with this dish: over-salting to enhance crispness and unforgivably dry poultry. Fortunately, neither of these conditions afflicted the tender fowl, which had a light, crisp exterior, the result of being weighed down by the brick. The meat was enjoyably tender and properly seasoned. The dish rested on a bed of rapini, toothsome greens that complemented the simple but pleasing chicken taste.

Craving decadence, I indulged in the $11 carbonara, the creamy spaghetti classic possessing a richness quotient on par with the unctuous Alfredo. A concoction of egg yolk and pancetta, or cured pork belly, Radda’s carbonara also includes shallot, chive and black pepper. My only quibble was that the otherwise fine spaghetti was a shade beyond al dente. But the abundance of diced pancetta made this a winner, and a sprinkling of red pepper helped temper the eggs’ substantial creaminess. A $5 side of roasted asparagus helped too, with its fine crisp-tender consistency and spring delicacy.

Even if one had no knowledge of the original Italian trattoria and its place in the restaurant pecking order, it’s still easy to appreciate what Radda seeks to accomplish. This restaurant successfully straddles the line between classic urban Italian restaurants and higher-end eateries. If substantial  Italian food that retains rustic roots while keeping a sophisticated flair in preparation and ingredient choice appeals, Radda is worth a trip to its North Boulder neighborhood.

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