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Dining update: Fresco Italian Cafe is a sound investment

Published September 25, 2008 12:00 am

Even amid harsh economic reality, the dreamy flavors of Italy offer a necessary, comforting escape
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It seems counter-intuitive to be writing a restaurant column nowadays. Inevitably, even through Wall Street tumbles and worry-induced insomnia, we find that we must eat. Dining at home is the most pragmatic way people budget their resources. But eventually there does come a breaking point when cooking sounds as appealing as running a triathlon and you long for something other than leftover soup.

So we carefully venture out with our money, mostly to the familiar and dependable. But sometimes we go into unknown territory - a sort of adventure in lieu of a jaunt to Europe. The latter is how I ended up at Fresco Italian Café.

The 15th and 15th neighborhood restaurant isn't on Italian soil, but it pays respect to the culture's variety of flavors, artisanal products and creativity borne from the seasons. It isn't what you would call grandmotherly cuisine. Chef Billy Sotelo and his kitchen team's aspirations seem more Gambero Rosso or Cibréo than Macaroni Grill. Trio Restaurant Group, which owns Fresco, would be wise to keep Mr. Sotelo around, as the food hasn't been this good in a long while.

It may not be San Vincenzo, but both Fresco's tiny farmhouse-style dining room and trellised patio are an ideal escape. Particularly with a glass of 2006 Alois Lageder chardonnay ($32 bottle) from Italy's northern reaches of Alto-Adige.

Nicer still, is the Robiola cheesecake ($8) that ends the meal. It is one of the best desserts I've had in the state, Fresco's not-too-sweet version utilizes the nuances of Robiola, in this case from Piedmont (imagine a square-puck of brie, but made with sheep's and cow's milks), to add depth and interest to the cream cheese.

It may veer from strictly traditional, but the flavors are honest and the execution is good, as was the case of a velvety, lobster herb sauced spaghettini special ($25) or the clarity of the heirloom tomato "soup" - a softly aromatic tomato juice as a pool for buffalo mozzarella tortellini ($10).

"Innovative," "creative" and "well-executed" are not synonymous with "pretentious." The small service team's performance is as tight as the tiny venue. They know the menu inside out, can offer recommendations based on your tastes and don't make you feel like an idiot if you don't know what exactly is on your cheese plate (usually 3 types, $10).

It also is obvious in the rather generous portions of potato-crusted halibut ($26) with braised leeks, chives and a dose of Pernod or the seared lamb loin with wild mushrooms ($24) that were actually wild and not inundated with farm-raised shiitakes - a trick too many restaurants tend to pull on diners.

The only place where it gets a little too precious in presentation is in a delicious tower of tuna crudo, spiked with a briny white anchovy and chili oil ($12). But then again, how many other ways can you present a mound of raw fish? Though the menu is concise, I still worry about its consistency in quality the way I do my portfolio. For the time being, though, I'll stay optimistic.

An ideal way to experience Fresco is their tasting menu (priced according to chef's chosen items; mine cost about $100), offered to any who ask when they make their reservation. Ten courses with optional wine pairings that I recommend not only for the exceptional wine list of domestic and European bottles, but also to learn from Sommelier Jimmy Santangelo. Wine is an intimidating world for even casual drinkers, and Santangelo's friendly manner and wicked-good knowledge makes you more comfortable.

And comfort, in all its guises, is a welcome thing lately. It's rare and satisfying to find a safe investment - such as this neighborhood eatery.

Vanessa Chang is a Tribune restaurant reviewer. E-mail her at food@sltrib.com. To comment on this column, write livingeditor@sltrib.com.

Splurge on a taste of northern Italy

Overall rating »

Food » Mood » Service » Noise » 2 bells

In a nutshell: Italian in inspiration, this 15th and 15th mainstay has never been better. Seasonal ingredients feature prominently in a concise and varied menu. Excellent wine list. Robiola cheesecake is superb.

Where » 1513 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City; 801-486-1300

Web site » http://www.frescoitaliancafe.com

Hours » Monday to Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.

Children's menu » No

Prices » $$$

Liquor » Full bar

Corkage » $12

Reservations » Recommended

Takeout » Yes

Wheelchair access » No

Outdoor dining » Yes

On-site parking » Yes

Credit cards » All major