Osteria d'Assisi

Osteria d’Assisi is conspicuously located on South Federal Place, across from the magnificent shaded lawn of the U.S. District Court. The restaurant’s charming interior has made it a favorite for special-occasion dinners — birthdays, anniversaries, first dates — for the 20 years it’s been in business. The food is, of course, Italian, but this isn’t a classic red-sauce restaurant. And the cuisine’s not as northern Italian in style as you might expect from a place whose owner, Lino Pertusini, and executive chef, Cristian Pontiggia, both hail from the Lake Como region of Lombardy.

While the menu seems to have identity problems, the cooking is confident. Creamy pasta sauces only lightly colored with tomato suggest northern refinement. Rollatini di melanzane, an eggplant roll-up in a rich marinara sauce, is robust in a Neapolitan way. Osteria makes good thin-crust pizza but overdoes it with the cheese (although that’s not always a bad thing). Offerings include both lasagna alla Bolognese (layered house-made pasta with meat sauce and béchamel) and capellini rustica (angel hair pasta with garlic, tomatoes, and mozzarella) — contrasting symbols of northern and southern styles. The menu, though not lengthy by any means, was put together by individuals who truly believe in offering something for everyone.

The restaurant is certainly a charming place. The tight little sunlit patio is seasonally attractive. Each of the interior rooms is warm, and one sports a fresco depicting a vineyard. The table service is better than you’ll often experience in Italy, and the food mostly comes to the table hot and fresh. The best seats in the house are at the short wine bar, where people grasp stemware, eat pizza, and share salads over conversation.

The wine list is heavily Italian and weighty with reds but also includes a prosecco by the glass. Antipasti serve as bar or finger food. Grilled zucchini and plump cannellini beans, both in oil, are served with a dry, concentrated prosciutto and rounds of salami creamy with fat. A salad of roasted beets, chewy figs, greens, and Gorgonzola had a bit too much of the champagne vinaigrette, subtly flavored as it was. The minestrone was soothing but not spectacular. The pizzas have a chewy, just-browned crust. Toppings are applied sparingly, but their quality is good — you can taste that house-made sausage before you actually bite into it. The cheese on the sausage pizza — mozzarella, fontina, and Gorgonzola — makes a statement in three-part harmony.

Main menu items are consistently respectable and occasionally stellar. But the changing array of specials — often involving seafood and sauces that are wonderfully complementary — gives you reason to pay Osteria more than the occasional visit. One evening’s plump bay scallops, set inside a pinwheel of large green-lipped mussels centered around a swirl of salt-cod mousse, had it all: superior ingredients, preparation, and presentation. It was a light, delectable concoction, neither salty nor fishy. All the components were understated yet stood yummily on their own. The scallops were fresh and mildly flavored, the mussels equally gentle despite their size. The sauce that it all sat on, with its little dabs of mint, didn’t let the other flavors dominate. And the plate showed off Pontiggia’s technique of arranging food in a circular fashion.

A lunch special of trout wrapped in parchment, which reminded me of the old campfire method of steaming trout in newspaper, included bay shrimp and peppers. The fish, flaking easily and seasoned just enough to color its translucent flavor, was a touch too moist. But the subtle blend of tastes — trout, shrimp, and vegetables — was enticingly understated.

The list of traditional Italian American menu items — ravioli, veal, lamb, pastas, steak, and chicken — is surprisingly brief and to the point. Veal ravioli with mushrooms in a slick cream sauce might have sat in the kitchen a little too long — the pasta’s edges were stiff. The thick and toothsome house-made fettuccine with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and a creamy tomato sauce was rich and satisfying. A seared organic beef fillet was gorgeously red inside, with a bit of char on the outside. A generous slab of seared pork belly balanced the beef’s leanness.

Desserts — a lemon meringue pie and a coconut cream pie — were not the piled-high diner variety but were sparingly sweetened, modestly sized, and intensely flavored. The tiramisu was no soggy construction, its ladyfingers and layers of mascarpone firm and inviting. We didn’t think much of the coffee, either drip or espresso. Desserts this good deserve better brew. ◀

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