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In the Neighborhood 

With impeccable service, a romantic ambience and some flashes of kitchen excellence, NARDO'S TRATTORIA might be on its way to becoming an Uptown institution.

Nardo's Trattoria has settled comfortably into its Uptown residential neighborhood. From the outside, green and red neon strips -- the colors of an Italian flag -- distinguish Nardo's from the surrounding homes. Inside, the former Norby's Restaurant and Bar at Webster and Laurel streets has been lovingly rebuilt in a restrained retro fashion as a wide, polished expanse of blond wood. An impressive bar dominates the front room, and in the afternoons, well-dressed groups of older customers sit in the snug booths and linger over their lunches. You could almost believe that they've been eating at Nardo's since they were young. When the veneer on the wood loses its sheen, someone could easily mistake Nardo's for a local institution and not a recent addition.

The food at Nardo's would also fit a long-established restaurant. The menu rarely strays from Italian classics: veal Oscar, chicken Marsala and lasagna. The kitchen decorates the plates with nothing more than a sprig of rosemary or a sprinkle of chopped parsley. Yet long-established restaurants, assured of a clientele that returns because of nostalgia or memories of near-perfect meals in the past, can sometimes be uneven. Despite the fact that Nardo's opened its doors just last year, it sometimes suffers from this unevenness as well.

The first meal I had at Nardo's was superb. We sat in the elegant back room, where the low lighting and swinging jazz tunes played quietly in the background, creating an ideal mood for a romantic date or an anniversary. From the moment we entered, Nardo's staff made us feel like they were taking care of us, and the food -- from the housemade rolls to the final bite of dessert -- was generous, delicious and perfectly executed.

We shared a plate of excellent grilled oysters topped with bacon and a crusty layer of Parmesan cheese and a nearly overwhelming seafood-stuffed artichoke. Rather than stuffed, the artichoke had been laid flat by a mountain of crawfish, shrimp, oysters and crab covered in lemon dill bianco cream sauce. If artichokes dipped in melted butter are good, then artichokes bathed in cream sauce with bits of seafood clinging to their leaves are divine.

An entree of veal Oscar (sauteed veal topped with hollandaise sauce and jumbo lump crabmeat) was flawless. The chicken Nardo, a house specialty of paneed chicken breast on fettuccine in a brandy cream sauce, was buried under pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, Italian sausage and large shrimp. Throughout the evening, the waiter kept a close watch on our table and the dishes arrived at a comfortable pace. After several rounds of cream sauces, dessert seemed out of the question. We rallied, though, and ordered a wedge of Angelo Brocato's spumoni with housemade whipped cream and a pyramid of three miniature housemade cannoli cemented to the plate with a base of chocolate mousse.

Stories of that memorable visit lured several friends to return with me to Nardo's. No other meal there, unfortunately, matched the first experience. Every time, at least one dish would misfire. The crust on a pizza with white garlic cream sauce was too floppy to lift, and I would have been better off eating it with a spoon than with a knife and fork. Fettuccine in the same white garlic cream sauce, served with an entree, had a pasty texture. A red fish fillet was roasted until mushy. And on the veal piccata, a well-cooked piece of veal was buried under such a heavy layer of capers and lemon juice that I tasted only acidity.

Other dishes -- like the spinach and artichoke appetizer or the three-cheese lasagna -- were more solid than outstanding. Still, at each meal I tasted at least one item that reminded me of how well the kitchen could perform. In the corn and crab bisque -- full of crab, whole corn kernels and green onions -- the crab and cream created a delicious sweetness oddly reminiscent of ice cream. It was enough to make me wonder if shellfish should be excluded automatically from the dessert menu. Luckily, butter knives are too dull for a duel, or a fight might have broken out as my friends and I maneuvered to grab the last bites of the meaty textured portabello mushroom stuffed with Italian sausage and seafood. Everyone at the table demanded a second taste of the velvety osso buco surrounded by a sauce full of carrots that resembled a dark vegetable stew. Even when a meal failed to impress completely, the service and relaxing room made every visit enjoyable. Norby's Restaurant and Bar had become a neighborhood institution by the end of its 40-year run; at Nardo's, the service already has the polish of a restaurant with a long history. If the kitchen can continue to produce its best dishes while improving the weaker items, then Nardo's might become a neighborhood institution itself.

click to enlarge The service at NARDO'S TRATTORIA already has the - polish of a restaurant with a long history. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The service at NARDO'S TRATTORIA already has the polish of a restaurant with a long history.
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