The downtown dining buzz right now is fixed on a pair of new Italian restaurants, Domenica and A Mano. Drawing on highly specific regional dishes, each is a welcome flip side to the beloved-but-predictable Creole-Italian fare that dominates the local red-sauce circuit.
Sandro's Trattoria, however, fits somewhere between the two styles, serving a Tuscan menu short on panache but long on comfort-food flavor and value.
Alessandro Pieri opened the place in 2003, and the menu is based on a collection of recipes passed down from his mother before she died at age 99. She must have been unmoved by all the seafood stuffing, crabmeat and crawfish that have made it into the local Creole-Italian cookbook, because none of that shows up at Sandro's.
The approach is basic, but it achieves a convincing home-style feel. This is a place, for instance, to load up on family-size tangles of fettuccine tossed with rich, nutty-tasting brown butter, either carpeted with wide slices of mushroom or just left to their own aromatic devices. Broad, thin sheets of paneed veal or pork, bowls of meatballs or crusty sausage in tomato sauce, and grilled shrimp are a la carte additions served on separate side plates.
The pastas and entrees come with routine salads or a choice of soups, of which I recommend the thick, bright tomato basil. Knowing the portion sizes to follow, this built-in first course makes appetizers a true extravagance, and I would pass over the forgettable fried calamari anyway. But the antipasto plate was an attractive, generous bouquet of proscuitto, coppa and hot sopressatta, matchsticks of Asiago and Parmesan, salty sauteed spinach and walnuts. The steamed mussels were dainty compared with the deep bowls diners are accustomed to elsewhere, but they were perfectly firm and sat in a mix of butter, wine and garlic that was closer to sauce than broth.
The pork osso buco is king of the entrees. Though it arrived at the table attended by a formidable steak knife, a fork was all I needed to unpeel the succulent hunk of braised pork from its bone and twirl the chunks through a cacciatore sauce served over an enormous pile of spaghetti.
Most dinner selections are available at lunch, which is good news because the panini that make up the rest of the daytime menu aren't worth the trip. The problem is the bread, which has all the character of a hot dog bun flattened by a sandwich press.
The dining room here is a pleasant surprise, with earthy colors, lots of reclaimed woodwork and only the lightest touches of Tuscan kitsch painted on the drywall. Service was speedy and polite, although on two occasions, ordering wine meant playing a guessing game about selections before the waiter agreed to produce the list.
Families arrive in numbers for weekend dinners, and the result is often a wait in Sandro's unusual outdoor lounge, created with potted plants and patio chairs set in one of the strip mall's parking spots. I prefer to eat at Sandro's early in the week, partly to avoid the crowd but mainly because the inevitable leftovers from these huge dinners make such substantial lunches the next day.