If there is one dish I shy away from in Italian restaurants it’s gnocchi. A quintessential national dish of the Italian canon, it is often so heavy it sits in the stomach like a glob of Playdoh. If the flour and potatoes are overworked, it tastes doughy. Sometimes the potatoes are mealy or gluey. I have had more rubbery, tasteless gnocchi in restaurants than I care to count. And then I ate at Cotto.
Cotto is billed as a wine bar and pizzeria but it is more than that. It’s a polished restaurant with a talented cook in the kitchen who crafts food full of flavor and knows when and how to tweak classics. With a mere perfect soupçon of a traditional basil pesto sauce, the gnocchi, for example, came with toasted pine nuts and oven-dried grape tomatoes that added a note of smokiness to the cloudlike smooth nuggets of pasta. Tiny pearls of mozzarella called perlini seemed superfluous, a minor quibble. I’ll take Cotta’s interpretation any way I can.
The restaurant is tucked in a corner on Bank Street in Stamford, where it’s nigh on impossible to find a parking space on this one-way restaurant row. Meter gotchas love this stretch so be wary of snagging an open space that is even slightly ambiguous (a freight-loading zone in front of a darkened building on a recent winter’s night proved lures for frustrated drivers followed by happy nests for parking tickets on windshields). Best to swing right on Atlantic Street and right again and park in the lot, then cut through the narrow alley to the restaurant. It’s no big deal.
Cotto’s owners are husband and wife Claudio and Silvy Rinaldi who ran successful restaurants in Italy before landing in Stamford. They took over the former Tappo place and recast it into a sleek bar-cum-dining room. The sports bar, with its marble counter and shelves glistening with jewel tones of wines and liquors, dominates one wall. Facing it is a brick gallery wall of photographs of Silvy’s actress mom with film stars and in publicity shots.
I like the fact that Cotto feels like a transplanted trattoria from anywhere in Italy even as it boasts a showstopper architectural element: Slatted slabs of wood sweep up from the bar, over the ceiling and dramatically end midway on the gallery wall. It looks as if you held a kaleidoscope to your eye inside a wine barrel turned on its side and you are peering from the mouth of the barrel to the other end. You get this cozy feeling of being wrapped in a semi-cocoon that seems to float with people snuggled inside.
And that’s just what we did, float down the menu. We wanted to taste everything the chef cooked up in his kitchen and restraint was difficult. We started with “wine bar antipasti” like green olives bursting with the pungency of oregano, thyme and rosemary and laced with slivers of orange peel; a chopped tomato bruschetta; another bruschetta, this one composed of a consortium of olives; and a mellow eggplant caponata. All wonderful. The smoked salmon with marscapone was perhaps too rich, although a few briny capers helped to tame the composition.
The arancini, on the other hand, were perfect. Gorgonzola, Fontina, Taleggio and Parmigiano cavorted with oven-dried tomatoes and a whisper of truffles to lift this otherwise ordinary antipasto to another dimension. The rice balls were very tasty, the grains cooked just right, the bread coating crisp and golden.
The charcuterie service had some wonderful salumis: paper-thin sweet prosciuttos, speck and soppressata. We also had house-made mozzarella and chunks of Grana Padano parmesan that were fresh and excellent. Served with dipping condiments of marinara sauce and spicy aioli, fried calamari, unfortunately, did not measure up to its hype of unusual treatment (a cloak of rice flour), and I missed the smokiness of the paprika promised on the menu. It was a minor disappointment.
Just as an arugula salad arrived at our table, we were treated to a ballet performance executed by dancers across the road from our front-of-the-house table. The long-legged, black leotard clad students were practicing arabesques behind glass windows that looked out from the back of the old Town Hall onto Bank Street. In a sort of free double show, a cook was slipping a pizza into a yawning oven at the same time at the far end of the restaurant, beyond the line-up of closely spaced tables.
The salad was a tasty accompaniment to the theatrics on either side of us. Pine nuts and grape tomatoes in the lemony salad were tossed with a crop of greens that tasted newly harvested. Parmesan shavings, almost obscuring the salad beneath, partnered beautifully with the surprisingly not-so-bitter greens.
Carnivores need not fret for there is plenty to entice them. Meats, like a hanger steak, are treated with respect. It bore a beautifully seared crust with a good bite and a tender rosy pink inside. Rectangles of fried polenta bedded shredded lamb sliders luxuriating in a fruity barola wine sauce, a happy collaboration. Then there’s fish and there’s pasta, of course. Cotto’s food borrows several pages from the southern Italian–American gustatory corpus, comfort food at its best, and ratchets it up to sensory pleasure. Prices are relaxed, from about $9 for an antipasto to a high of about $26 for an entrée.
A serving of airy tiramisu escorted by raspberries ended our perfect evening.
Cotto has an adequate wine cellar that navigates the mother country for the most part. Prices are wallet pleasers, with a number of bottles in the $34 range.
Needless to say, we plan to go back, to sample pizzas, and, of course, another plate of gnocchi.
Cotto Wine Bar and Pizzeria
51 Bank St.