Review: I Fratellini in Clayton

Wall-length banquettes and high conversational volume bring an East Side of Manhattan aura to I Fratellini, the Clayton-based little brother to Zoe Robinson's eponymous Central West End establishment. And the familial similarity extends farther because "I Fratellini" means "little brothers," and Robinson named her new restaurant to honor her two small sons. In addition, Laotian chef Ny Vongsaly, reversing the travels of Marco Polo, has extended his culinary reach from the Pan-Asian style of the CWE to also cover the splendid Italian specialties he prepares in Clayton.

Tucked into a small storefront just east of Hanley Road, I Fratellini offers some delicious meals, a superior and interesting wine list and excellent service. With entrees close to, but not topping $20, the prices remain moderate and the selection good. In addition to the menu, there are refrigerated cases with desserts, like the old Bar Italia, and with carry-out items.

The establishment seats about three dozen, and the waiting area is minimal. Through late summer and early autumn, people waiting for tables have been able to enjoy the Wydown Boulevard scene from a bench in front of the restaurant, but the comfort will be more problematic as cooler evenings arrive.

The menu offers appetizers, pasta as a main course and a half-dozen entree items which, on one visit, showed pan-seared salmon and red snapper, roasted trout and tilapia with imaginative and tasty sauces, like olives and capers atop the snapper, prosciutto and sage to accompany the trout. Meat selections were lamb shank on polenta and tenderloin stuffed with spinach and gorgonzola cheese. Pastas included linguine with seafood, tagliatelle with mushrooms and prosciutto and, more imaginatively, ravioli stuffed with arugula and potatoes, veal-filled cannelloni, angolotti filled with spinach and a risotto of the day.

In a trattoria style of cooking, Vongsaly keeps things simple, letting the basic flavor of the ingredients come forward. A chilled mussels appetizer, with large shellfish perfectly arranged around a small mound of cherry tomatoes with basil, olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar was splendid, with a squeeze of lemon on top bringing out the tastes of both the mussels and the tomatoes. The mussels were icy cold, sweet and extremely toothsome.

Good, crusty baguettes and butter dotted with pistachios are delicious accompaniments to a pre-dinner drink, or just pre-dinner conversation. I Fratellini salads can be excellent choices as first courses; we sampled a couple and found them superior. Wilted spinach with caramelized onion, pancetta and gorgonzola in a tart dressing displays a favorite Italian technique of salads being just a little warm, so that the dressing creeps into all the greens, which have wilted a little. It makes for some delightful contrasts in texture and flavor. A caprini salad of warmed goat cheese, with sun dried tomatoes, roasted garlic and capers is another to please the most jaded salad eater, as is arugula with pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.

Speaking of appetizers, lobster bisque was a special treat on one visit, the rich, creamy soup dancing with bits of tasty lobster. Nothing fancy about this one, with the lobster flavors and texture all the soup needed for excellence.

Agnolotti pasta, stuffed with spinach and resting in a brown butter-sauce with overtones of sage, was properly al dente, and absolutely delicious. Vongsaly's touch with spices, gentled by his experience with Asian cuisine, is on the light side, but it's enough so that his food cannot be considered bland. Just right would be a better description. Lamb shanks, always a flavorful cut, apparently had been roasted in an open pan, concentrating the rich, delicious pan juices that heightened the flavor of the meat. The creamy polenta showed strong, tasty evidence of its origin in a cornfield. Beef tenderloin medallions, stuffed with gorgonzola and spinach, was a real winner. The sharpness of the cheese was a splendid contrast with both the spinach and the beef, the latter cooked properly rare and displaying the flavors that have made beef such a favorite.

Snapper, sauteed with a memory-stirring Mediterranean collection of tomatoes, capers and Kalamata olives, blending sweet and acidic in perfect manner, was another perfect pairing. Both the beef and the snapper were accompanied by asparagus that was undercooked and almost unchewable. On another visit, green beans suffered from a similar problem. I like vegetables that offer a little resistance and display a slight crunch, but someone's watch wasn't working properly. Potatoes, however, were delicious, led by a remarkable gratin, thinly sliced and thick with cheese.

The wine list, heavy on Italian offerings, has good range and moderate prices, with offerings by the glass or bottle, though it's slightly precious to serve the less expensive wines in ordinary water tumblers ("that's the Italian style," explained the waiter, which was correct, but for cafes far less stylish than I Fratellini). However, springing for an entire bottle makes the diner eligible for crystal. A good rustic red was a fine example by the glass, and a bottle of Valsaia, similar to a pinot noir, was excellent with the Mediterranean spicing of the snapper. In a bow to Venice, where the original Harry's Bar created the original bellini, I Fratellini offers a proper rendition, nicely peachy.

Desserts come from La Dolce Vita, ice cream and sorbet from the matchless Ron Ryan's Quezel, but while Ryan's lemon and raspberry are perfect, his cherry was a disappointment, with flavor closer to an artificially flavored maraschino or Jell-o than to real cherries. If Ryan sets his mind to something, however, he will succeed, and I look forward to a more flavorful version. Panacotta was quite remarkable, unlike the milky gelatin that often appears under that name, both in Italy and in the United States. It was as though it contained Ricotta or a similar cheese, and the coffee-flavored caramel drizzled on top was a crowning touch. Other pastries also are first-class, and dinner at I Fratellini leaves one with the same high-flying feeling.

A little noise? Perhaps, but not nearly enough to inhibit the enjoyment of outstanding meals, properly served.