Close Encounters

Incontro buzzes with patrons relishing the hearty, inexpensive Italian food

The Memoirist and I sat recently at the edge of Incontro's dining room, talking of this and that while around us the new trattoria buzzed and hummed with the cheerful white noise of other patrons.

"I think it's designed to be noisy," said the Memoirist (an acute observer of the telling detail and savvy about food and restaurants: What better companion?), "so that within all the hubbub each table has its own little bubble of privacy."

Certainly our table had its little bubble, within which we agreed with some irony on the virtues of silence. Silence makes thinking possible, and thinking is generally -- though not always -- a precondition to writing. Yet if Incontro (which occupies the space vacated last year by Bahia) is set up for noise -- with its ceramic-tile floor and open dining room whose peach and pale-blue walls are topped with a running frieze -- it's reassuring noise, welcoming rather than intrusive, as from a civilized party. Anyway, we weren't there to write but to eat.

There's so much Italian food now in the city (and the country) that it's a challenge for a kitchen to make a favorably distinctive mark in preparing it. One way is to reinterpret classic Italian dishes by giving them a "California" spin (cilantro pesto in pasta, for example); another is to emphasize rarefied ingredients, such as white truffles. Incontro has chosen another path: a more or less traditional Italian menu set to the rhythms of the local seasons -- and priced reasonably. It's a good, if not yet perfect, way, and a good deal.

Lunch and dinner share the same basic menu, with only the specials changing. At lunch, one of these was the zuppa fagioli ($2.75), a kind of minestrone whose broth had been thickened with pureed cannellini beans. The soup was chunky with bits of tomato and diced green and yellow squashes; pancetta (the rolled Italian bacon) added a meaty tang. But the star of the show was the bean broth, rich and earthy. (Also it didn't need salt: a sign the kitchen was doing the necessary tasting.)

Crostini caponata ($4.95) featured slices of grilled bread arrayed beside a dark-red, generous mound of relish made up of eggplant, tomato, olives, and capers. The relish nicely harmonized its potentially clamorous components (olives can be salty, eggplant bitter), but the bread -- crusty-tender and delicately perfumed with garlic -- was good enough not to need the caponata at all.

Incontro's kitchen likes to sauce its pastas with a little extra dollop, so that there's something left over to mop up with bread. The manicotti al forno ($8.50) came with plenty of tomato sauce, which was tasty, but not enough to lift the dish from the swamp of ordinariness. The fat tubes of pasta were mushy, and their filling (which, despite the menu's claim of "three cheeses," seemed to consist mainly of ricotta) was bland.

The Memoirist found the grilled-chicken salad ($5.95) wanting. Atop a bed of greens sat a rather naked-looking boneless breast, pounded into a paillard, though with handsome cross-hatching. The chicken breast would have been juicier if it hadn't been pounded so thin. Scattered around the edges of the plate were pieces of diced zucchini, shreds of artichoke hearts, curly shavings of Parmesan cheese (which add an enormous zip to any dish), and candied walnuts. A simple vinaigrette was tasty, but there wasn't enough of it to bring the salad to life.

"I got the wrong thing," the Memoirist said to me as we left. I nodded, thinking that Tiramisu Man often says the same thing after ordering the (to me) least-promising item on the menu and being, predictably, crushed when it arrives.

For dinner I prevailed upon T-Man to have the roasted rabbit ($11.95); it was scented with rosemary and garlic and nested in a bed of soft polenta, with a demi-glace of onion and balsamic vinegar served in a ramekin on the side.

He didn't hate it, but he didn't love it, either. More surprisingly, he did like my calamari risotto ($10.95 -- a good price for a main course risotto). The dish included (besides an abundance of squid) plenty of sliced mushrooms, and it had been cooked (perfectly) in broth laced with mushroom liquor. The server had described the risotto as negro because of the use of squid ink in preparing it, but we noticed nothing dramatically inky; the dish as a whole was an unremarkable brown. (In fact it could have used some color: diced red and yellow peppers, perhaps, and chopped scallions? Saffron aioli?)

After a few bites I could see that T-Man was dying to switch main courses. With very little cajoling on my part he agreed, and cleaned the plate. (This is the person who, when asked if he would like risotto for dinner, reflexively says, "No." So I cannot offer higher praise to Incontro's version.)

The rabbit I inherited was a little dry and had a slightly spongy texture. (Had it been frozen?) But the meat, polenta, and demi-glace, jumbled up with a fork, did make a hearty mash, and the grilled vegetables on the side (zucchini, eggplant, and tomato: ratatouille in disguise) were attractively smoky and crispy.

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