You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from local residents when Rizzuto's opened last week in Westport. Situated in the old Conte's location by the Westport train station, this new kid on the block has boasted a packed dining room since opening day. This is remarkable given both the economy (Rizzuto's is reasonable, but not cheap), and the cavernous size of the actual dining space. Those who had sampled the fare in the first few days seemed almost surprised by the quality of the food coming from their "Wood Fired" Kitchen and Bar, as if they had given up hope for our town, but now felt reinspired. I speak from experience when I say Westport has been waiting a long time for a casual, kid-friendly dining space with a decent atmosphere and solid food. After the fourth person stopped me in the street to inquire as to whether I had visited this new hot spot, I decided I had best get over there and see for myself what all the buzz was about.
Walking into Rizzuto's, you are struck by the music, the bustling atmosphere, and the colossal copper wood-fired oven standing center stage in the open kitchen that spans one side of the dining room. The ability to see into the kitchen workspace adds to the active spirit of the scene, and the well-staffed room feels accommodating and friendly. Above the kitchen, is an equally enormous chalkboard touting the daily specials, and if it wasn't clear from the tomato and basil displayed on Rizzuto's signage, you will be eating Italian fare.
The word on the street was that this was a kid-friendly joint, and the street was right. At 6PM on a Wednesday night, the restaurant was filled with many families as well as a few adult diners, lucky enough to have gotten a sitter. Given the high volume of white noise, no heads turned if your kid fussed. Rizzuto's did their due dilligence, and really made an effort to cater towards the under-12 crowd, with a kids menu that includes tasty versions of the standards, but also a grilled salmon, and spaghetti and meatballs that I would be happy to eat. I marveled at what seemed like the perfect recipe for success. Now I had to see if the food delivered.
The menu is almost as large as the space. It has everything from mix and match Antipasto plates with cured meats, artisan cheese, and vegetable, reasonably priced pizzas in the $15 range, Salads available in two sizes, Pasta dishes from $15-28, and of course your more substantial entrees. The pizza, as well as many of the entrees (like the cedar planked salmon) take advantage of the wood fired oven's great flavor and quick cook time with some nice results.
We began our meal with a Chickpea Puree with garlic & oven-fired flatbread. It had a drizzle of olive oil, and was finished with a few sesame seeds and paprika. It had great flavor and consistency and the flatbread was a nice substitute for the classic pita accompaniment. While on the subject of bread, I should mention that they make all of their bread on premises, and it is good. The bread plate (which arrived just in time to avoid having my 9-yr. old add her own whine to that vibrant atmosphere) had a simple Focaccia, and a delicious crusty wheat bread. The Foccacia could have had a little more seasoning but was still light and crispy. The heartier wheat bread was excellent, especially when drowned in their olive oil/balsamic vinegar mix, sprinkled with kosher salt. (You can actually purchase this great bread for home consumption at the attached market, along with a variety of other take-out items like pasta, sauces, and salads.)
Next out was my Rizzuto's Chopped Salad with romaine, asparagus, olives, artichoke, prosciutto, and sopressata, ricotta salata, and tomato. I was instructed to choose from a selection of House-Infused Vinegars to accompany my EVOO including Orange Vanilla, Papaya, Apple-Cranberry, Fig, Fennel, Orange-Rosemary, and Apple-Cranberry. I thought this was one of the nice touches on the menu, and the Fig Balsamic had great flavor. I actually wished I had ordered a simpler salad so I could better enjoy the nuances of the dressing. The Chopped Salad was very good, chopped into bite size chunks vs. a fine chop and was loaded with very fresh veggies. The sopressata was slightly spicy and very tasty, although the pork content was a tad high for my liking...but hey, maybe you can never have too much pork.
And now for the pizza… on every table in the packed dining room can be found a pizza of varying dough (they offer both white and wheat), with various toppings. They say on their menu that "each day starts with kindling the fire and mixing our artisan dough," and they must be mixing a lot of dough! The pizza toppings are plentiful and some even inspired. If you please, you may top your creation with everything from Pesto, Smoked Pancetta, Vodka Sauce, Broccoli Rabe, or Chopped Fresh Clams. There is even a Ricotta & Black Truffle Pizza that we have our eye on for the next visit.
My husband opted for the Barbecued Chicken Pizza with zesty house-made barbecue sauce, wood-grilled chicken and smoked mozzarella. The much-anticipated pizza arrived with excellent crispy crust, a wonderful spicy sauce- as advertised, and abundant chunks of tender chicken. It was excellent, and the smoked mozzarella was a nice addition.
My daughter ordered Spaghetti and Meatballs from the Kids Menu, which I should point out, is one of the best kids menus in the area. Yes, it boasts the requisite Chicken Fingers (but better), Penne with Butter, and of course pizza, but the above mentioned Spaghetti and Meatballs was far superior to any meatball I could make at home, and came with a delicious house-made sauce. The fresh pasta was cooked just right, and if you order the Grilled Chicken Breast or Grilled Salmon, you can select a starch and daily veggie from the big board. The kids entrees, which come with a drink and the Gross Chocolate "Dirt" Dessert (which my child can't stop talking about) came to the bargain price of $8.95. More on the "Dirt" later. This makes Rizzuto's a no-brainer for parents who don't feel like cooking, but don't want to eat at Bertucci's. Adults enjoy an elegant meal, and kids can eat REAL food instead of the standard children's repertoire. Hence, the packed dining room every night after 6.
We felt compelled to order something from the Pasta menu as all of Rizzuto's pasta is made fresh daily and includes some interesting specials like Whole Wheat Linguini and Black Pepper Fettuccine as well as Gluten-Free options. We went with a classic in order to easily compare it to other local pasta offerings: Pasta Bolognese. We were able to choose the type of pasta from a list of daily specials, which I appreciated. The rustic meat sauce was nicely seasoned, very flavorful, and loaded with tender meat in that delicious, fresh, house-made tomato sauce. Granted, it was not quite on par with Strada 18's version of the dish, but is was pretty close.
Lastly in the evening's line-up was my Cedar Planked Salmon (pictured above), cooked in the wood-fired oven. I have been a big fan of the plank preparation since my 7-year stint in Seattle and I have to admit, this salmon was darn good. The fish was fresh; it had a slightly spicy dry rub and great smoky flavor from both the oven and the wood plank. The plank is actually plated with the salmon yielding a nice presentation, and comes with your choice of a daily vegetable and starch. I selected the sauteed greens which were nice and garlicky. On the starch side, they were serving either roasted or mashed potatoes, or a very flavorful herbed brown rice. The rice was actually wonderful, and had a nice citrus tang. I was told that they ship their salmon in fresh daily, and it showed.
Aside from the Gross Chocolate "Dirt" served with the Kids Menu, we did not partake in dessert, but we did enjoy a rich cappuccino, which was as good as coffee gets without a barrista. I did promise an explanation of the "Dirt" so here goes... picture if you will, a glass sundae bowl with chocolate mousse, topped with Oreo cookie crumble, and gummy worms slithering up the sides of the dish. Needless to say, it is a huge hit with the younger crowd.
All in all, we are talking about a well executed, simple offering that will please both adults and children alike. The food is solid. The atmosphere is fun. Westporters are loving Rizzuto's, so make a reservation to avoid waiting in line at this new local favorite.
Rizzuto's 540 Riverside Avenue. Westport. 203.221.1002
Rizzuto's can also be found at these locations:
6 Stony Hill Road, Bethel. 203.790.4444
111 Memorial Road, Blue Back Square, West Hartford. 860.232.5000