“I can hear myself speak” was my sentiment shortly after arriving at Liana’s. It’s kind of nice in this age of lofty wine bars and chic locales to find respite at a place on the cozy side that makes an effort to slow the pace down just a little.
Despite its small street level space on Tunxis Hill Road in Fairfield, Liana’s Trattoria accommodates a full bar and two high top tables to the left through the entry, with a half wall separating it from the dining room to the right. The ceilings are low and with lights dimmed the ambience is, dare I say, intimate.
Liana DeMeglio, who worked for a long time at Pasta Nostra in Sono, greeted and sat us, returning frequently to check on us throughout the meal, while hours before she was in the kitchen making desserts and the ricotta gnocchi renowned by repeat diners. It’s readily apparent that she’s the lady of the house; gliding around the dining room with the couple of waiters that handle service, expediting orders from the kitchen, creating an almost home-style atmosphere that works really well.
In terms of the food, nothing extra is thrown in that need not be there for taste or to simply add visual appeal; the naturally bright colors of fresh vegetables, the simple but full flavors of things like garlic and fresh herbs are enough. Don’t get me wrong though, the presentation of dishes is understated, clean, and the portions seem just right.
Peperoni Piccanti, for instance, were three skinny green peppers, grilled and served beside slices of medium aged provolone, slivers of roasted garlic and oil cured olives, presented in minimalist style with each component nestled in its own corner of the plate (seen above).
The menu description said “some are hot, some not so hot.” After downing mild first and second peppers I took a big bite of the third, overconfident after building up a tolerance to “hot” cherry peppers over the years. Realizing the arrogance as my eyes watered, I looked up momentarily to see the sky blue drop ceiling studded with clouds, then I gathered my senses and came back down to Earth…so when they say hot they actually mean it. Perhaps with all the bitter components and salt a sweet element would have made the dish more complete, but the surprise of varying heat levels was fun.
The seductive smell of Impepate di Cozze, or peppered mussels reached the table and our noses before they did, triggering a hording action by everyone for those all-important slices of warm, crusty dipping bread. The super-sized mussels had just a little extra pep to them (the black kind) and lemon, fully enjoyable in all their natural goodness, not to mention the garlicky broth they were cooked and served in…“more bread, please.”
Homemade Ravioli del Giorno is always on the menu and the stuffing changes periodically, served with either basic tomato or meat sauce. Plated slightly overlapping one another were four super thin, translucent envelopes enclosing ricotta and fresh parsley. Dressed conservatively rather than swimming in savory meat sauce, the texture of the pasta stood out amid the well balanced, homey elements.
When we ordered, the waiter suggested he throw in a couple of meatballs with the ravioli, something I had to think about for a moment…balls of meat on top of meat sauce and stuffed pasta seemed like blasphemy. But a good meatball can make or break a restaurant’s reputation, so I felt it my duty to say yes.
Golf ball-sized Polpettine were thoughtfully served on the side and unadorned so we could perform a true taste test. They were cooked perfectly; a thin crust giving way to seriously fork tender meat, very moist with a base of garlic and stuffed with black raisins and pine nuts in true southern [Italian] style. Even though my Great Grandmother was of the “no raisin” sect I think she would have grudgingly respected these.
Now, for the Ricotta Gnocchi: if I was one tenth my current size I could have slept on those plump little pillows. After quick boiling they’re finished in a sauté pan with sage and slivers of garlic in butter, absorbing the sauce and stiffening up slightly. In each bite there was a contrast between the firm and savory outer edge followed by the creamy and sweet layer of ricotta within, earth and pungency coming from the sage and garlic. The abundance of dairy richness made it tall order to finish, so next time I might order a plate for everyone to snack on throughout the meal…and/or try the contrast of plain tomato sauce.
Veal Medallions were also well-liked; breaded in pleasantly uneven homemade crumbs and fried in olive oil, they were served under some arugula and cherry tomatoes dressed with a bright lemon vinaigrette, topped with shaved Parmigiano.
The Linguine with Clams should have been a “can’t miss” but was disappointingly over salted, hindering our ability to taste the “fruit of the sea” sweetness of the clams in their broth.
We found the wine list to be above and beyond most Italian restaurants in the area, including many small producers and lesser-known varietals from throughout Italy. After much deliberation we went about as far away from Naples as possible while staying Italian for a Pinot Noir by Erste + Neue, from Alto Adige. It was fruity and light; not instantly recognizable as Italian and perhaps not a perfect match for everyone’s dish, but enjoyed by all. We could have easily ordered something totally different though because it was a pleasant surprise not to see names commonly found in retail stores. Add savvy sommelier to Signora DeMeglio’s CV.
For dessert, Panna Cotta was infused with pleasant lemon and cinnamon flavors, though a little too gelatinous. The berry compote topping it wasn’t overly sweet so that the natural tartness of the fruit shone through to cut the creaminess underneath.
Ricotta (yes, more ricotta!), when employed in cake form, is supposedly a lighter alternative to dense and rich New York Cheesecake, but I find it often comes out spongy, making me want the real thing. Liana cleverly does a hybrid based on ricotta with some mascarpone and just a little cream cheese mixed in. The result was both moist and fluffy, served up in a large golden wedge and flavored with orange essence. A timely espresso with it, brought as hot as can be, capped off the evening.
Liana’s is not another in the long list of Italian eateries wherever you go who might as well share menus. Theirs does feature the ubiquitous red sauce and prominent garlic, but the cuisine is an ode to the authentic cooking of the Bay of Naples and southern Italy. Reverence is shown to a few quality ingredients in each dish, executed precisely to let them shine without much fuss…the essence of Italian food.
Open for dinner only Tuesday through Saturday, I get the feeling that Liana’s is well suited to its low(er) profile. It’s a word of mouth kind of place that has carved a niche in the neighborhood, not advertising itself with the knowledge that its wholly satisfying fare will attract a loyal following, which it apparently has. Those who have added it to their list of favorites will surely hope it stays that way.
Liana's Trattoria 591 Tunxis Hill Road, Fairfield. 203.368.1235
[PHOTOGRAPHY BY TINA RUPP]