In a bustling Italian Westport eatery at 9:30 on a Saturday night, every table is full and, although we have reservations, there’s still a slight wait. Even the bar, which doesn’t make for an adequate wait area, is elbow to elbow with hungry patrons salivating for a table. Opened since July 2011, people can’t get enough of this place. So what’s all the hoopla about?
It seems that with the mere mention of celebrity chef Mario Batali people just lose their minds. And so goes an ordinary night at Tarry Lodge Enoteca Pizzeria. To be fair, however, the restaurant isn’t a sole effort by Batali (nor is it his first). Along with fellow restaurateur Joe Bastianich, the seemingly perpetually stone-faced co-host of Master Chef (alongside Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot), the two have created a distinctive culinary group that features more than a dozen restaurants.
I, like so many others, was in the mood to lose my mind…if only for a couple of hours. So a small group of four ventured out to the Saugatuck neighborhood in Westport and prepared to be impressed with Tarry Lodge Enoteca Pizzeria. As first impressions go, I felt it had the right stuff. Requisite crowd, check. Loud and boisterous atmosphere, check. Wood-fired pizza oven, well this deserves two checks. It had all of this and sumptuous aromas, too. So what if we had to wait? I’m an optimist at heart, and as I gazed around the restaurant at the satisfied looks on customers faces who had already tucked into their entrées, any worries that had crept to the surface were duly allayed. The one drawback, however, was being seated next to the kitchen door—ingress and egress for the wait staff—which swung open with reckless abandon throughout the meal.
Of the four of us, only two were wine drinkers. Of those two, one had a penchant for South African varietals, especially Shiraz, whereas I was more attuned to a Cabernet Sauvignon. Monika, a manager at Tarry Lodge, acted as our sommelier for the evening and recommended the Ornellaia le Volte 2009, which had flavors of both. We ordered a bottle and found it to be a splendid recommendation that was full bodied without being too aggressive and glided softly and effortlessly down the throat.
The Insalate and Fritti sections of the menu were small but interesting. With each person at the table ordering something different, it provided a well-rounded representation of the offerings. Husband and wife Joe and Terri tag teamed with the Grappa Cured Salmon ($12) and Porcini Arancini ($9), while my husband Maarten and I opted for the Jamon Serrano ($13) and Beet and Coach Farm Goat Cheese Caprese ($12), respectively.
All four were winners. The cured salmon was tender and practically melted in the mouth, while the porcini Arancini filled with rice and cheese were, in Terri’s words, “beyond delish!” Fold upon fold of the dry cured Jamon Serrano was presented resting atop a wooden cutting board. Deeply flavored and aromatic, the thin yet firm ham imparted a taste of Spain in an otherwise Italian environment. And while the caprese was an unconventional take on the dish, it was a deliciously different spin that my palate agreed with wholeheartedly.
While the starters initially won us over, the entrées sealed the deal in Tarry Lodge’s favor. There were any number of dishes that we could have chosen from, from the Goat Cheese Tortellini ($16) to Ribeye Tagliata ($27) to the more curious and adventurous Clams with Garlic and Oregano ($15) pizza. However, as great minds tend to think alike, both Terri and I ordered the Pumpkin Fiore. Imagine housemade ravioli filled with pumpkin in a brown butter sauce topped with a crispy sage leaf. We didn’t have to use our imagination because the beauty of the dish was at our disposal and it was fabulous. If your dining proclivities lean towards pasta, I highly recommend this dish.
Joe took advantage of Tarry Lodge’s pizza selection and ordered the Margherita ($11). It’s amazing how something as simple as tomato, mozzarella and basil slathered across pizza dough can have the power to bring a satisfied smile to a grown man’s face.
The savory juiciness of the Whole Branzino ($26), also known as European Sea Bass, was the prize of the evening for Maarten. Served with a pleasantly mild salsa verde, the comingling of the two created an enjoyable combination.
By the end of the meal, just when I didn’t think another morsel could pass my lips, we were tempted with the evils of dessert. But oh what a luscious evil it was. The Dolce listing (all $8) was small but respectable, and although there was Pannacotta with Amarena cherries, Tiramisu, and even a special Tarry Lodge Sundae, we opted for the least decadent of the bunch, Gelati & Sorbetti. Of the flavors that we tried—Hazelnut, Pistachio, Grapefruit Campari and Blood Orange—the rich and creamy Pistachio was my favorite.
We were one of the last tables to leave the restaurant late that Saturday evening. Although the night began on a slightly delayed note, it ended on a high one. Now I know what the buzz is all about. You come out of sheer curiosity, but you return because the food is just that damn good. I see more Pumpkin Fiore in my future. Seriously, I do.
Tarry Lodge Enoteca Pizzeria, 30 Charles Street, Westport, CT 06880 / 203-571-1038
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For dining options outside of Fairfield County, be sure to check out my other column, “International Restaurant Examiner“, where I visit restaurants across the U.S. and abroad.