Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review: Mr. Martino's Trattoria

This won't be especially easy for me. When Mr. Martino's came along over ten years ago (at least), it was something of a novelty: "Italian-Italian" rather than the Italian-American you'd find in red gravy joints like Marra's down Passyunk Avenue. "BYOB" was just four letters and not a whole sub-genre of the dining scene. Indeed, Mr. Martino's has a special place in history.

But unfortunately, history is where it belongs.

The space and its ramshackle charms hold such promise: the original stamped tin ceiling, the tile entryway left over from the place's former life as (I believe) a hardware store, the tangled mess of extra chairs on a second-floor loft, illuminated by the light from outside. The kitchen is very small, we learn, and that's why the wait for the food is sometimes a little long. The wait, the food: if only it were worth it ...

As Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Though simplicity is generally a virtue when you're talking about Italian cuisine, the menu steps over the "too simple" line. You'd better like pasta, because over half of it seems to be some variation of "pasta with tomato sauce". And the sauce, while not bad, certainly isn't enough to carry a dish like a small bowl of penne with the sauce heaped over the top, not even sauteed together to coat the pasta in a finishing touch that even the IKEA cafeteria doesn't skimp on.

My spinach lasagna could have been a welcome, lightened interpretation of a dish that can be an oppressively cheesy mess, but the pile of wet noodles, tasteless ricotta and spinach filling and the aforementioned sauce was singularly unsatisfying.

Lauren's cavatelli with pumpkin sauce, one of the "specials" (which never seem to change), was oversauced, overly sweet, and not particularly pumpkiny. And, well, you know the joke about "the food was lousy ... and such small portions!" ... I'd argue that it makes sense here.

No one ordered it, but I can't help but mention that there's a boneless chicken breast on the menu. Frankly, I think we have moved past this point as a society.

What we have here is a place that helped blaze a trail, that led the way of an exodus out of the land of chicken parmigiana and veal marsala to a place with lighter, cleaner, fresher flavors, only to be eclipsed by a hundred other Italian BYOs, and never catching up. The lack of culinary invention in this place is damning it to eternal mediocrity. Though it has a stable of regulars who I imagine are drawn back by the relatively cheap food and friendly service, with Passyunk Avenue heating up the way it has been, sooner or later the people are going to stop coming, and it will have to adapt or fall by the wayside.

Mr. Martino's Trattoria on Urbanspoon

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