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Trattoria Centrale, Birmingham AL

August 30, 2011

David and I went up to Birmingham a couple of weeks ago, and tried Trattoria Centrale for the first time. What a treat. It was fantastic, and I am dying to go back to see how they change their menu and create new inventive combinations. Everything was so flavorful and every ingredient seemed so high quality and carefully chosen. If we lived closer to the city, this would definitely be a frequent destination of ours.

The trattoria is a small place, with lots of little tables in a dimly lit dining room and a few more outside. Somehow, our seats still felt private and comfortable. Intriguing, unique art on the walls creates atmosphere. A few well-worn cookbooks are stashed on a shelf right above a prep area in the kitchen (one was The Flavor Bible, a favorite of mine), and pasta and pizza are displayed behind glass up front. Besides the fact that everyone is speaking English, you can easily imagine that you’re halfway across the globe in a small authentic restaurant on an Italian piazza.

You order at the counter, and when we arrived at about 6:30 on a Friday, the line was snaking around a counter and nearly spilling out the door. However, don’t think that ordering at the counter means you won’t get a pleasing restaurant experience. Bottles are opened and wine is poured with care, and attentive servers bring your dishes in the proper order. Ours were perfectly timed between appetizers, entrees, and dessert. Plus, ordering with the cashier allows you a glimpse of the espresso machine next to him, which is a piece of art in and of itself. You can get a spoonful of nutella added to any espresso drink on the menu. How we resisted that temptation, I have no idea.

I started with the chilled cucumber soup with basil, mint, and olive oil, and it was amazing. I don’t know what they did in the kitchen, but cucumbers have never tasted so delicious and so perfectly seasoned. The relatively simple flavor combination became something very special. I would have ordered a second bowl if I’d known that I would like it far more than the dark chocolate gelato. Did you hear that? I liked the cucumber soup far more than the dark chocolate gelato. And, seriously, I do not even like cucumbers that much. You should really try this soup, or look for a similar recipe, or figure out which olive oil they use at this restaurant. David ordered the arugula salad with peaches, gorgonzola, pistachios, and honey, and pronounced it great too.

For an entree, I had the bucatini alla putanesca, which featured tomatoes, garlic, olives, capers, chili flake, and parsley. It was delicious. I don’t eat putanesca very often, but it was the best I’ve had. At first I was disappointed there wasn’t more of the sauce, but it was so flavorful and well-seasoned that it turned out to be just the right amount for the pasta after all. My husband tried the zucchini, sweet pepper, and garlic pizza, and said “How can relatively simple pizza possibly taste this good?” It far exceeded our expectations after we saw it looking so regular and humble behind the glass on the front counter.

We shared the dark chocolate gelato for dessert, and it was fine, but nothing to write home about. A little more icy and less creamy than I’d prefer. Everything else was so good that we thought maybe we had finally found a place in the states that serves gelato as wonderful as it is in Italy, but alas, our search continues in that area.

You’ll find Trattoria Centrale at 207 20th Street North in Birmingham, 35203. Phone them at (205) 202-5612. Unfortunately they are not open on Saturdays, but you can enjoy their fare Monday – Thursday 7:30am – 6:30pm, Fridays 7:30 am – 10pm, and Sundays for brunch from 11am – 2pm.

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