A few years ago, I learned two important lessons while living in the environs of New York City. First, never drive a car with Idaho plates into Manhattan. Second, never judge an Italian restaurant's food based on a poor location or a lackluster atmosphere.
But this is Idaho, and not all East Coast lessons translate out West.
Although it may be unappealing from the curbside—situated in a strip mall near a smoke shop on State Street—Rotella's Trattoria at least has some broader geographic appeal, being easily accessible from Eagle, the Bench and the North End. Regrettably, inside where it counts, Rotella's maintains the strip-mall feel. Lights are on high, the heat on low and the wall of windows looks unfinished with only blinds for treatment. Plain vinyl booths lining two walls and running down the center of the dining room offer limited aesthetic to the surroundings, and only linen napkins and clothed tables save the space.
However, at Rotella's the possibilities of the menu eclipse any atmospheric shortcomings. Too bad most of those possibilities fail to materialize successfully.
With a Milan-trained chef in charge and a bevy of BW readers rallying behind Rotella's (the restaurant was unofficially named best Italian restaurant in a Food News readers' poll), the restaurant should be on the short list of destination Italian eateries. Instead, on a recent Saturday night, the service was sloppy, the meal erratically paced and the entrees unremarkable.
A starter of prosciutto-wrapped bay scallops ($12.97) arrived neither hot nor cold, and a gelatinous raspberry sauce hurt more than helped the dish. House salads topped with house-made dressings were a few notches below par, as well. The basil vinaigrette too closely resembled a poorly blended pesto in presentation and flavor and left the large chunk of iceberg lettuce soaking in a pool of olive oil. After the first two courses arrived nearly simultaneously, the main event was many, many minutes in the making. Had the wait been worth the result, the poor timing would have been forgivable. A Vitello Parmagia's ($17.97) fresh, chunky sauce and handmade rigatoni were a promising start, but a gristly, tough cut of veal undercut the dish's ultimate success. From the build-your-own portion of the menu, Rotella's Verdura tossed in capellini ($12.97) was perhaps the evening's most palatable—although if one expects to find basil pesto amongst the angel hair, sun-dried tomato, black olive and artichoke heart concoction, be sure to save some dressing from the salad course. A large bowl of Gamberetto Scampini ($16.97) may have permanently scared off one diner. Per the menu, the dish was: "full head-on prawns sauteed in a rich butter, cream and white wine sauce served over a bed of rotelli pasta." What arrived was homemade pasta and a half-dozen headless prawns swimming in a thin, wine-heavy soup devoid of the described "rich," "butter" and "cream." Three mostly full plates left the table for the trash rather than take-home boxes, and a final attempt was made with dessert. After many, many more minutes (the duration of which was spent overhearing the noisy conversations of the waitstaff) tiramisu ($6.97) and fritters ($5.50) ended the evening on a sweet note, albeit one that won't likely be sweet enough to entice a return for two diners. A second visit fared somewhat better with a creamy tomato soup of velvety texture and well balanced flavor. Gnocchi ($15.94) was a little too large and too dense, but the smothering alfredo sauce was an almost perfect specimen.
If Rotella's Trattoria intends to demand finer dining prices without a high-profile location or a couple of candles to soften the glare, the chef would do well to fine-tune the food.
—Rachael Daigle likes her lobster tails done Ferrara NYC style.