La Caterina Trattoria

Flavor: Seasonal southern Italian
Ambiance: Intimate, charming
Service: Well-trained, colorful

On a recent evening, three friends joined me for dinner at at La Caterina Trattoria. The restaurant has been an Asheville success story, opening first in Pack Square in 1994, then moving a decade later in the building off Merimon Avenue formerly occupied by the Il Paradiso steakhouse. The owners and chef employ local ingredients whenever possible, and are well known for their dry-aged, quality meats and fresh pastas, which are used to make traditional and upscale yet unpretentious Italian cuisine.

While the two of us waited for the rest of our party at the restaurant’s casual and hospitable bar, we selected two glasses of wine from a small section of the list that contains selections made available specially to the restaurant by Steve Pignatiello, a local sommelier specializing in boutique wines from the Burgundy region of France.

Once our entire group had arrived, we were seated swiftly. A member of the staff invited us to our table, with instructions to leave our half-empty glasses of wine at the bar, assuring us they would be brought to us once we were settled – a nice touch.

Our pony-tailed server arrived at the table quickly, sporting an accent that was hard to identify; his pronunciation everything Italian was nearly musical, with dramatically rolling r’s and an olde-country lilt, yet also with a mysterious twang. When we asked him about it, he proudly revealed that was born in West Virginia to an American mother and an Italian father. Raised on a stout and nourishing diet of both pasta and biscuits and gravy, he considered himself “half Italian and half hillbilly.”

Our waiter offered more than just amusing quips and interesting heritage; he was also highly knowledgeable of the food and wine selections. At one point, he tirelessly rattled off the details and peculiarities of viticulture in the specific region of Italy where a particular wine came from.

Deftly, he directed us to order all five of the appetizers we were considering. He knew what we wanted – a table full of food.

Soon enough, that’s precisely what we had. Appetizer platters were passed about in a flurry of hands harvesting choice morsels. Among the best was a house-cured salami from the antipasti platter, which we all deemed delicious, necessitating judicious parceling out. The smoky grilled asparagus from the Asparagi Griglio appetizer was also among the more sought-after offerings, as was the fresh, young arugula from a salad made with house-cured tuna. Eating this way – family style – allowed us to ignore the less-prized bits: The pine nuts on the asparagus platter, for example, had been over-toasted to the point of being blackened. A gnocchi with smoked trout was hit or miss, depending on who you asked at the table. The octopus from the Polpo Marinata dish was slightly gritty and under-seasoned, causing its flavor and feel to be overly oceanic.

Back on the up side, La Caterina’s pastas are handmade – an attribute that seems woefully hard to come by Asheville. Three out of the four of us, in fact, ordered pasta dishes for our entrees, while the fourth devoted his attention to the Salsicce del Giorno, a house-made sausage dish that changes frequently. We were fortunate enough to encounter rabbit sausage on this particular occasion; the chef, said our server, most frequently employs pork as the base filling. The pale sausage, spiked with pine nuts and dried fruit, then served over white beans lightly flavored with prosciutto and finished with a rabbit demiglaçe, was so delicious it was coveted by the rest of the table.

Among the pastas we sampled were the Bucatini Carbonara (ravioli filled with ricotta, Romano and mint) and the Cavatelli Guance di Vitello with its braised veal cheeks, cherry tomatoes and scallions. The cavatelli dish was light and brothy, the veal tender as one could expect from a cheek muscle. It was a perfect accompaniment to the spring weather – light, but substantial enough to stand up to the slight evening chill in the air. (My only complaint was that fava beans, which were promised on the menu, did not appear in the dish.) The ravioli was surprising, in that the mint was not overpowering, but it was otherwise somewhat unremarkable, as was the bucatini dish – though both dishes were enjoyed.

Dessert was a bit of a disappointment, with a cloyingly sweet version of tiramisu that was huge, fluffy and a departure from what I’ve come to expect from my favorite dessert. Our waiter, in a deliciously serendipitous moment, arrived to infuse all of the Italian authenticity he could muster into the conclusion of our meal. To the delight of some and the bemusement of others, with sweat beading on his forehead, he expertly belted out a lush and vibrato-filled rendition of a song from Puccini’s Tosca that was worthy of center stage, thereupon, he smiled, bowed and strode away, ponytail swinging behind him to hearty applause. Now that, my friends, is Italian – Asheville-style.

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