All in the Family Bargain @ Tutti’s Ristorante

Christy Colasurdo

Since I’ve lived up in Connecticut, I’ve been less than impressed with many of the area’s “finest” Italian restaurants. I just can’t wrap my head around a precious $25 dish of angel hair pasta studded with a few shrimps or lobster morsels—a portion that wouldn’t satisfy a seven-year-old 

Growing up, my family frequented some of the best Italian restaurants in New York and Long Island. We knew most of the proprietors by name—and they knew ours. I’m not talking about the pretentious, upscale Italian eateries pandering to the facelift and Fendi crowd, but the tiny, authentic holes-in-the-wall catering to folks who know great Italian food doesn’t mean a hose down.  

Give me a real family-run Italian joint any day—a laid-back trattoria presided over by the owners, where the entrees, pastas and sauces are homemade, plentiful and most likely prepared and served with a smile by a bonafide member of the family tree. That’s just what you’ll find at Tutti’s Ristorante.

Set in a tiny brick building on Westport’s Riverside Avenue near the train station, Tutti's was once better known as a takeout joint than as a bustling onsite dining destination. If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to take it easier on your Am Ex, put this surprising little find on your list for 2010

Run by the warm and inviting Funicello family, Tutti’s (formerly known as “Tutti Invitati!” or “Everyone’s Invited!”) is a throwback to days when going out for Italian was about good food, good wine and good friends. Bring your friends and your appetite. 

Know up front that the ambience is more pizzeria than Paci, warmed up by semolina-colored walls, crisp white tablecloths, burgundy cloth napkins and votive candles. Upon entering, there’s a steam tray of takeout fare and a full view of the kitchen. No matter. Though the space is small and the décor is spare, the restaurant manages to pack in about 40 in quarters where the chairs are of the mix-and-match variety and the assorted wine and Prosecco bottles on the tables add a festive air.  

Speaking of wine, be sure to bring a few bottles of your own (no liquor license and no corkage fees!) and you are well on your way to a bella notte at a steal. On our most recent visit, dinner for six, including salads, appetizers, entrees and desserts, rang up at $180 (without tax and tip). At roughly $30 per person, we checked our math to make sure that the wine hadn’t gone to our heads when settling the bill. 

With the guys on one side of the table and the gals on the other, we ordered up a large house salad for each side with greens, marinated red peppers, tomatoes, black olives and cucumbers and a generous side of crumbled gorgonzola, as well as two antipasti plates of prosciutto, roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella. Our hot starter was the terrific homemade eggplant rollatini, which was served lasagna-style (layers of ricotta and thinly sliced breaded eggplant) topped with house marinara, which we sopped up with hunks of crusty bread. Our neighbors ordered one of the night’s special appetizers—the Portobello, asparagus and goat cheese medley—a beautifully presented cold starter that I am hoping will be available on my next visit. 

It was a little harder for us to reach a consensus on main dishes, what with a menu of regular entrees, plus an astounding 17 gourmet specials—including everything from osso buco with risotto, rack of lamb, chateau briand for two, Chilean seabass marechiara and an array of seafood and risotto dishes. When proprietress Maria Funicello came to take our order, I asked, “Do you always have this many specials?” She laughed. “My husband Pasquale, he’s a pest. He likes to give customers a lot of choices.” 

As self-proclaimed artist who prides himself on quality ingredients, big portions and presentation, Pasquale graduated from Culinary School in Sorrento, Italy in 1972 as a Master Chef. Since then, he has owned or worked as head chef in many local restaurants, including Angelina’s and Sola Luna in Westport, Sunset Grille in Norwalk and Bella Luna in Greenwich.  

Though you might expect the well-done classics and even the good pizzas at Tutti’s, it’s Pasquale’s ambitious—and delicious—specials that knock you for a loop.

When’s the last time you were bowled over by a pasta dish? After consulting with Maria, one of my girlfriends and I opted to try the Pasta Caramella, which, Maria explained, means “little candies.” These fresh-made egg pasta bites are stuffed with an airy mozzarella filling and twisted at the ends to resemble cellophane-wrapped caramels. The caramellas are tossed with a light vodka sauce as well as pieces of sautéed asparagus, sliced mushrooms and mixed greens. Delicioso! 

Another of the ladies opted for the scallops piccata, a clean and simple dish of oversized, perfectly caramelized scallops served over linguine in a lemony piccata sauce. She had plenty to take home for the next day’s lunch. 

Over at the other end of the table, one of the guys was eyeballing the risottos; one with mixed seafood, the other with porcini mushrooms, but something was amiss. Like the Italian mama she is, Maria asked, “What’s the matter?” and, just like that, added asparagus and shrimps to the porcini risotto to create a customized dish. The other guys opted for classics: a gigantic platter of cheesy veal parmigiana, which was pretty much what you’d expect, and a dish of tasty penne a la vodka big enough for sharing. 

While we sampled each other’s food and worked our way through about six bottles of Chianti, Cabernet and Malbec, a group of four was seated nearby. We overheard them asking Maria for a wine list. While she explained the bring-your-own policy, the couple next to them sprang into action and plopped a bottle in the center of the table with a grin. The grateful foursome returned the favor by sending over desserts. In the midst of all this good will, the far side of restaurant broke into a loud rendition “Happy Birthday” for a spry gentleman who appeared to be celebrating at least 90 years on this earth. With the singing and clapping, the clinking glasses and the overall din, you’ll feel like you’re guests at a loud family party

Though we sat at 7:15 p.m., it was past 9:30 p.m. when we pushed back from the table. Be forewarned: Though the restaurant is hopping and the food comes out fast once you’ve ordered it, the initial service can be slo-o-w. This is a place where people linger, and no one seems to be in a major rush. If you know this in advance, you can adjust to the restaurant’s rhythms and relax between courses. After dinner, we sat enjoying our wine until 10 p.m., when we finally ordered espresso and a couple of tiramisus and a slice of cannoli pie, just two of the creamy homemade desserts on the tempting tray. In truth, we were too stuffed to fully enjoy them. 

The next time you’re searching for a better-than-home-cooked Italian meal that won’t break the bank, dial up Tutti’s and see if they can squeeze you in for a surprisingly fine feast at a price that’s molte bene. If you linger long enough, dinner may cost less than the sitter. 

A few notes:  

The word on Tutti’s is out, so call ahead for reservations. On a previous visit, our party of six arrived on time, only to learn that our table wouldn’t be ready for at least half an hour. Since there’s no bar and no place to wait, we left our phone number and headed over to the Black Duck, tucked behind the restaurant, for pre-dinner drinks. By the time we returned, ordered and finally dug in, my husband was about to chew off his arm. 

Bring a sweater in the winter. Since there’s no foyer, it gets cold if you’re seated in the vicinity of either of the big picture windows up front or by the door, which is constantly opening.  

Though it’s a family place, it’s best to bring the kids early. The BYO wine policy attracts a boisterous adult crowd after dark.  

To park, use the lot just north of the restaurant or park in back lot, near the Black Duck. 

If you want to sample the fare without dining in, stop by and pick up the list of daily specials. They will read you the specials over the phone, but you’ll never remember them all. 

One more thing: If you’re like us and tend to go a little overboard with the BYO wines, designate a driver or catch a ride home from Westport Taxi (203 227-5157), which is located at the train station, just steps away. Saugatuck has become a busy dining/drinking destination, with Bonda, Mario’s, Tarantino’s, Rizzuto’s, Cucina Modo Mio, Mansion Clam House, Viva Zapata’s, Riverhouse and Dunville’s all located in a two- mile radius. Beware: The weekly police blotter is full of DWI listings from weekend snags in this area.  

Tutti’s Ristorante 599 Riverside Avenue, Westport. 203.221.0262