Money may be tight, but people still yearn to dine out in style. Enter Circa, a handsome, new trattoria where nothing on the menu (except a veal chop) exceeds $19.50 and most dishes cost less. Chef Mark Serrantino's deft Italian cookery meshes well with the restaurant's thoughtfully conceived, moderately priced wine list, which features several compelling selections by the glass.
While big investors (such as the force behind Rothmann's in East Norwich) are involved here, it's managing partner Armondomario Mingione, a native of Naples, who gives Circa much of its personality and warmth.
Serrantino is an ace at turning out crisp, alluring pizzas. Four of us order a pie that's half Margherita-style (fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil), the remainder topped with pesto, Parmigiano reggiano and mozzarella. It's all lush and savory. A winning chopped salad - greens, dried cranberries, candied pignoli and Gorgonzola tossed in a tart pomegranate vinaigrette - sounds like the old mesclun-fruit-nut-cheese cliché, but, in actuality, is much better.
We share the "antipasto misto," a daily-changing assortment of hot and cold appetizers. Best are the crispy-creamy rice balls, tender fried calamari and excellent cured meats such as prosciutto di Parma and capicolla. There are cheeses and olives, as well.
Mingione stops by our table to kibitz and urges a member of our group to order the penne Circa. It turns out to be a meltingly satisfying combination - sweet Italian sausage, eggplant and mozzarella "pearls" tossed with quill-shaped pasta. Veal Sorrentino, tender scallopini with prosciutto, eggplant and mozzarella, is surprisingly vibrant, paired with cavatelli pomodoro.
On a chilly night, I like the rustic chicken scarpariello, poultry sauteed with sausage, mushrooms, cherry peppers, garlic, rosemary, lemon and roasted potatoes. Spaghettini con polpette features big, soft voluptuous meatballs (purportedly "nonna's" recipe) blanketed by a bright tomato sauce.
What impresses most, though, is a partially fileted branzino sauteed with a lemony gremolata. True, I would have preferred the fish totally on the bone, but what I'm eating comes fairly close to perfect.
Favorites among the house-made finales include the boozy and light tiramisu and perfume-y chocolate amaretto mousse.
Sausage and broccoli rabe with roast garlic over gemelli comes off as bland and boring. And the overcooked spaghetti beneath "nonna's" fab meatballs would embarrass an Italian grandma who knows that pasta should be served al dente. Someone forgot to watch the pot - a true aberration at a place such as this.
Give people well-crafted food served by friendly professionals in attractive surroundings and don't charge them a whole lot of money for it. They'll come.
HOW THEY RATE $$ Average meal $30 and under, pp $ Average meal $15 and under, pp ****Exceptional ***Excellent **Very good *Good