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Feast: Allora, Il Tesoro

July 21, 2010

My absolute favorite word in the Italian language is “allora.” It can mean then, so, what, or now, depending on the context. Every day in Italy you hear it, tripping melodically off the tongues of café owners, shop keepers, bus drivers.

“Allora, what can I get you?”

“Allora, how are you today?”

“Allora, please take your seat.”

It is impossible to say allora in an angry way, or to say it very fast. Try it:  al-lo-ra. It takes a few seconds, forcing you to slow down. The Italians are experts at enjoying life at an unhurried stroll, and it seems that their pace is set by allora. And just as it is impossible to say allora in an angry tone, it is impossible to be angry when you hear the word. It is calming, mellifluous without being clingy. When heard from the mouth of a tall, dark, Italian man, well, allora can make you forget anything you’d been thinking for the past three days.

It is allora that saved Il Tesoro a few nights ago, on my inaugural visit. Sitting in the cramped foyer for more than 30 minutes after checking in for our reservation, I was mentally beating the hostess over the head with my purse when a tall, dark, Italian man came over, smiled, and said: “Allora, would you like a glass of wine while you are waiting?”

Yes, yes I would like a glass of wine. And what is my last name again? Where am I? Why was I angry? Ah yes, Chianti, allora, thank you, Mr. Beautiful Man.

At this small, authentic Italian restaurant, allora reminded me to sit back, breathe, relax, and enjoy.

Il Tesoro (“treasure” in Italian), run by owner and Chef AJ Black, has only been on Sanibel Island for a year- the restaurant has another, older location in Edgartown MA. Chef Black is from Rome and has owned and worked in several restaurants in both Italy and the US, and his Italian influences permeate every inch of his restaurant, starting with the plates of marinated vegetables and cured meats that sit on the counter to greet customers, as well as the open air kitchen where one can see eel being tossed into pots and smell Gnocchi Genovese before they even read about it on the menu. On Sanibel, where most restaurants greet you with a life size gator and most meals come with a side of potato chips (and still cost $25), Il Tesoro is a welcome change.

Il Tesoro is located in a small building, shared by an art gallery. Should you have to wait for your table – ahem- you can take your glass of wine to the gallery to browse. While there, you may receive the same tip I did- “If you want one of the specials, ask the price before you order.” Indeed, when I asked the price for one the specials on my first visit, I was given the vague answer of “our specials are between 25 and 52 dollars this evening.” Not an insignificant difference in price. Aside from their price-protective nature, however, the staff at Il Tesoro was welcoming and warm, and happy to explain or expound on any dish.

We started with the antipasti platter, offered at the ambitious price of $19. It was decidedly not worth it.  Halve the price, call it cicchetti- (authentic Italian bar snacks) and the small plate of marinated veggies and anchovies becomes much more palatable. Clearly some re-branding is needed for this dish, which was good but not what was expected from the menu description. The Polenta con Gorgonzola Funghi, Italian grits with gorgonzola cheese, mushrooms, and truffle oil, arrived in a pungent yellow puddle and was quickly devoured. The gorgonzola was totally overwhelmed by the truffle oil, but the dish was still soothing and filling, like sophisticated Italian baby food.

After we listened to the listing of specials- lobster ravioli and Chilean Sea Bass among them-we asked the price of the Black Grouper and settled on that as our wild card. Served with a free form and very rustic caponata sauce of eggplant, tomato, and olive pieces, it was seared well, with a crispy skin and soft, flaky flesh. Pappardelle con Porcini was lauded as the house specialty, and with the creamy texture of the homemade noodles and the plump mushrooms, one can see why.  However, Fettuccini Norcina would be better named Fettuccini Alfredo. Billed as “pasta with a parmesan cream sauce and mushrooms,” it was really an alfredo sauce with a few truffles tossed in.  Penne ala Vodka, however, was a winner. A creamy sauce, thin but not soupy, with large though not unwieldy pieces of tomato. Having cooked this dish many times, as well as eaten it at countless restaurants, I can say with certainty that this pink mist with its slight tang, slight heat, and smooth texture, was perfect. However, on a latter visit this same dish arrived with a different consistency, and it was clear that something in the sauce had once lived with burned garlic, like the chef had let it simmer too long then reused the same pan for his next batch.  I thought for a moment that the change in taste had to do with the wine I was drinking, so I ordered a glass of the Chianti I’d enjoyed on my first visit. Nope- wine still good, sauce still burned. Disappointing, as one of the hallmarks of a good restaurant is consistency.

Dessert has just a few viable- though worthy- selections. Choose the Peach Sorbet and it will arrive in the shell of an actual frozen peach. The sorbet itself is smooth and fresh, clearly made in-house and with fresh fruit. The frozen peach as vessel is a definite plus, and my dining partners munched on this peach on both visits. The tiramisu, the only other dessert made in-house, was light, made with local mascarpone cheese and fresh lady fingers. Add an espresso to the evening, and you’ll be wishing for a piazza to stroll through at the end of your meal.

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