Location, location, location. If Fratelli's were on Tejon instead of Nevada, and a few blocks closer to Restaurant Row, would it be better known?
Probably, and more's the pity. For in this unprepossessing glass-fronted space you can have some pretty fine Italian food. And since Caf Giovanna abandoned downtown, Fratelli's has the playing field largely to itself, with the exception of Trattoria de Angelo which focuses more on pizza than pasta.
On two recent visits we enjoyed traditional Italian dishes made to order with care and fresh ingredients. There's nothing nouvelle served here, just the tried and true, with a preponderance of marinara sauce.
Like Spaghettini con Meatballs or Italian Sausage, or Gnocchi alla Napoletana, potato dumplings made in heaven. There are chicken, veal and shrimp dishes done with marinara, and dishes where the marinara gets dressed up a little, in peppery spices for Shrimp Fra Diavolo, or finished with capers and Calamata olives for Penne Arrabiato.
All these variations on a marinara theme work because the sauce's ingredients are fresh and the preparations are simple. A change of pasta -- from penne to fettuccine, for example -- or a change in cooking style -- baked ziti with sausage instead of spaghetti -- makes a subtle but tangible difference. And because all these pasta dishes are delicious, Fratelli's menu offers classic dishes without being boring.
Small touches abound. Delicate vases with tiny budding flowers; tea candles in glass holders; pretzel-shaped hot rolls to dip into olive oil infused with oregano, garlic and pepper; and complimentary bruscetta. One night, we started with the chef's special appetizer, and tried the Caesar salad on a follow-up visit. The special appetizer paired roasted red peppers with slices of mozzarella and Calamata olives. The dish, however, was less interesting and far less tasty than the bruscetta. I'd recommend the Caesar salad for a starter, especially if you like your Caesar with lots of anchovy flavor. Appetizers are priced between $6.95 and $12 (for the generously portioned antipasto).
All entrees come with soup or salad. Both were terrific. The house salad had fresh greens and a lively balsamic dressing. We also sampled Tuscan Bean Minestrone, a soup with more carrots than beans (which had been pureed for texture and flavor). It was piping hot and packed with crisp vegetables and al dente pasta: rich, yummy and freshly made.
Ordering the day's special is always a good idea. On one visit the special featured penne pasta (cooked, as were all the pasta dishes we sampled, perfectly al dente) with pancetta. Two additional pasta entrees are enlivened by that other reason to give thanks for processed meat, prosciutto. Both the prosciutto and the pancetta add a zingy saltiness to the dishes. Pollo alla Sorrentina tops a thinly pounded chicken breast with prosciutto, eggplant and mozzarella, slathers it all with marinara, and pairs it with enough penne pasta to feed two. It was good even as leftovers the next day.
Penne ai Fratelli tones down the boisterous marinara into a smooth, aromatic rose-cream sauce thinned with a touch of vodka, and adds prosciutto and peas. It was the best of the pasta dishes we ordered and reason alone to eat at Fratelli's. On the entre side, the stuffed eggplant, Melenzane Rollatine, was the standout. It had almost more cheese than eggplant, supporting my contention that one can't have too much cheese in Italian dishes. Stuffed with ricotta, topped with mozzarella, could eggplant be any better?
Less successful was one of the veal entrees, Veal Pizzaiola. The veal was appropriately thin but startlingly tough and tasteless. Since the marinara sauce overwhelmed the veal, I'd recommend either the Veal Marsala or Veal Piccata with their more delicate wine-based sauces.
Entre prices run from $12.95 to $19.95. The predominantly Italian wine list offers some lovely bottles in the $25 to $35 dollar range. Desserts like cannoli, tiramisu, spumoni and gelato hover between $4.25 and $5.25. The cannoli is worth every penny. And the service we received on both visits was excellent -- friendly but not intrusive, attentive but not fawning.
Depending on the time of day and the day of the week, there may be a rhythmic thumping from the dance studio upstairs, adding a certain oppressive charm that the acoustic tile ceiling does little to dispel. On another night, however, you might be entertained by John Corlis, a local pianist, who provides delightful dining music. Like so much of life, timing is everything. Or is it location?