336 Montauk Hwy., Hampton Bays
SERVICE: Aside from one unhelpful hostess, cheerful and hardworking, if a bit slow on busy nights
AMBIENCE: Updated Italian-American roadhouse with a lively bar, a large and loud dining room, and a menu of imaginatively rethought comfort food classics.
ESSENTIALS: Dinner, Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; credit cards, wheelchair accessible
At Centro Trattoria in Hampton Bays, a vintage black-and-white photo mural on one of the dining room walls shows how much fun and glamorous Italian dining can be. Five Broadway showgirls, circa 1948, participate in a pasta-eating contest where they each eat a plate of spaghetti without their hands. If you choose wisely at this updated roadhouse, you might have an equally good time.
East End restaurants can be sleepy in the winter, so the roaring crowd in the packed bar one Friday night was a surprise. Centro, in the spot that formerly housed Villa Toscano, has only recently opened, but its staff seems to be dealing well with its popularity. A valet parking system efficiently handles a tight parking situation out back. Dropping the car off at the door, we barely had time to admire the handsome glass-walled wine storage room near the entrance before our coats were checked and we were whisked to a table. (Inexplicably, the greeting was not so warm on a slow Sunday afternoon, when an unfriendly hostess responded to the request of the first of our party to be seated that she’d “rather not,” even though the restaurant was mostly empty.) The atmosphere in the large rectangular dining room, separated from the bar area by open shelving decorated with large and colorful blown glass bottles, was either convivial or deafening, depending on your tolerance for noise.
We went with conviviality, ordering a $38 bottle of Gavi di Gavi from a wine list that includes “30 in the 30s.” These bargains, including mostly Italian whites, reds, and sparklers, really lighten the mood. Along with our drinks, our waiter brought a basket of good, crusty bread, olive oil, and a generous pile of Parmigiano-Reggiano crumbles for nibbling, which was a good thing, because it was quite a while before he returned to take our appetizer orders.
The menu is an appealing mix of updated classics. Chef James Carpenter, a Hamptons veteran with stints at the American Hotel, East Hampton Point, and the Living Room under his belt, is going for boldness rather than subtlety. Grilled octopus was tender on the inside and charred to the point of burned (in a good way) on the outside. Clams oreganata were nice and garlicky as expected, but not as piping hot as I would have liked. Perhaps they also had to wait a tad too long for their server to arrive. Crispy zucchini chips were a bland but efficient vehicle for two lively sauces, tomato basil aioli and tzatziki. Our favorite appetizer was a luxurious thin-crust pizza topped with mozzarella, arugula, and truffle-flavored pecorino cheese. In general, portions at Centro are generous. The pizza could serve one large or two smaller appetites as a main course.
Pastas are hearty, rustic, and heavy on the tomatoes. At every table, someone seemed to be enjoying an overflowing bowl of bucatini pomodoro. It’s a respectable version of spaghetti and meatballs, notable for the thick, tubular strands of pasta that might smack you in the face even if you are using a fork. In the same vein but less messy were the sheep ricotta gnudi, tender little dumplings along with tasty lamb meatballs and some sautéed kale, all of it tossed in tomato sauce.
Of the main dishes, chicken stood out. The chicken alla griglia was a juicy half-bird, nicely garnished with roasted vegetables from nearby Satur Farms. The tender chicken Milanese had a crisp and buttery coating of crumbs and a sprightly salad of cherry tomatoes, white beans, and arugula showered on top. A huge slab of roasted stuffed pork loin was fork tender but a little heavy on the citrus for my taste. No complaints about the creamy and corny stone-ground polenta that accompanied it.
Desserts were a mixed bag. A plate of mini cannolis was cute but the pastries lacked sufficient sweetness and flavor. An Italian-style cheesecake was light, but dry and similarly dull. The tall and fluffy tiramisu, in contrast, was rich but not heavy, with a nice shot of coffee flavor. And a warm chocolate cake was enhanced by a tart drizzle of balsamic syrup.