Teatro may be the perfect mousetrap for today's diner. First of all, it's Italian. In times of economic uncertainty or stress, Americans eat Italian. They may have dallied with fusion or taken a liking to French bistro, but when they get nervous, Italian is their comfort food.
Then there's cachet: This is one of the hottest hot spots in one of the chic neighborhoods (who'd have ever thought a few years ago that the edge of the Combat Zone would be a desirable address?). And Teatro, Italian for theater, more than lives up to its name. In the long, narrow room that once was Galleria Italiana, all eyes are drawn to the ceiling.
Vaulted and 15 feet high, the whitewashed ceiling is decoratively etched with gold, restored from a synagogue that once occupied the space. Inset lights bathe the ceiling with pale blue light, and tiny beaded light fixtures dangle down. It's quite a focus for the room, otherwise very simply done with the original limestone and marble walls and granite-topped tables.
But there's another hook for the restaurantgoer: Teatro's owner Jamie Mammano and chef Robert Jean have devised a menu that is close to a Roman trattoria: straightforward, accessible and, most notably, quite reasonably priced. And with a few exceptions, the food is as striking as the surroundings.
Mammano, who is chef and part-owner of the much pricier and more formal Mistral, brings his disciplined hotel training (he worked for years for the Four Seasons here and in other cities) to bear in this new concept. Teatro is casual -- no reservations, no valet, no coat check -- but not casually run. The number of managers on a busy Friday almost outnumber the wait staff, and keep the tables turning briskly. The wait staff is efficient and cheerful, and the kitchen, fully visible at the end of the room, turns out dishes with practiced rapidity.
The only hitch is the noise. All these visual details are easy to gather because conversation is almost impossible with sound bouncing around the hard surfaces in the vaulted space.
That does tend to focus one's attention on Jean's food, however. Fried calamari, one of the most maligned dishes in the modern repertoire, here finds salvation. The platter of rings and tentacles is golden and crisp, with breading so light and greaseless that it floats on the tongue. There's a bowl of lemon aioli in which to dip the calamari, but we leave it untouched, happy to have the flavors unaltered. An arugula salad comes dressed only with lemon and topped with thin sheets of Parmesan. A bowl of ribollita, a twice-cooked bean soup with pancetta, cavolo Nero (black leafy cabbage), Parmesan and a hunk of bread, is hearty enough to serve as a meal.
Just when I've decided pasta is receding in popularity, spaghetti alla chitarra carbonara of chef Jean, who was executive sous at Mistral for three years, makes a brilliant case for its resuscitation. Very thin pasta has been tossed with egg and cream so that it's a lovely yellow, rich and smooth and accentuated with salty, crisp chunks of Italian bacon. This version rivals that of the famous Al Moro in Rome, I think, as I happily fork it up. The contrast between the parsnip filling in tortelli and shreds of roast duck is captivating. The root vegetables' grassy sweetness is heightened by the savory meat.
The pizza element isn't neglected here, thin-crusted pizzas that crackle under the teeth. A white cheese version with sea salt and hot peppers sounds the most intriguing, but is rather blah. The more mundane, tomato with mozzarella, one any child will love, is actually irresistible.
Main courses are ample in size but streamlined, no frou-frou presentations. There's the protein, such as a large slab of grilled salmon glazed with mustard, and the accompaniment of pleasantly bitter broccoli rabe. Grilled swordfish is similar, with a topping of caper butter and a sheaf of grilled asparagus. Sadly, a spectacular roasted monkfish on the bone, moist and succulent with a beautifully browned exterior, has left the menu.
Veal saltimbocca is one of the most elaborate dishes, but is a little too much, compared to some of the sleeker offerings. By the time the veal fillet is stuffed with prosciutto, lightly crumbed and sauteed, it's rather leaden, and even great wild mushrooms can't completely redeem it. And the spinach is so thoroughly creamed that it's almost a soup. Minute steak, pounded thin and seared quickly, is tender and tasty, although of course not the thick juicy cut so beloved by diners. But there's no way to fault the papas fritti, or french fries, thin and crispy with a pencil-thin interior of moist potato.
Teatro has a full wine list with many wines by the glass, a good thing for casual eating. Desserts are also in tune with the feeling of the place. Three sorbets and three gelatos a night are very high quality, although not made there. The apricot sorbet hits the right notes of tanginess and sweetness, and an espresso gelato has an intriguingly bitter edge. A rum cake, made by the Mistral pastry chef, is a more voluptuous treat, its heady burst of booziness gentled by a well-made cake and a dollop of whipped cream.
Manager Jeff Iovino says in a phone interview that Teatro was designed for the neighborhood and the theater and movie crowds. But it's attracting a wider swath of diners, he says. It should -- this is a gem in the genre of casual restaurants.