After we walked into Trattoria Aroma's Williamsville branch and scored a table, two foursomes arrived. They talked to the host, glanced at the bar dotted with waiting people and left to continue their evenings elsewhere.
I felt sorry for them as they left. After my meal, I realized why they'd gambled. Trattoria Aroma serves up "cucina rustica," as opposed to the standard American Italian red-sauce menu. No spaghetti and meatballs parm or shoebox-size servings of lasagna here, or at its Bryant Street location.
Instead, there's brick-oven pizza with crisp crusts, hearty salads, pastas with housemade sausage, rabbit and other off-speed pitches on the entrees list. It's a pleasure just to read the menu and recall that regional Italian cuisine can be every bit as varied as American.
As we pondered, the server brought a basket of crusty bread and a saucer of flavored dipping oil. Mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese had added earthy, funky notes to the oil, a small but appreciated touch. Our server was prompt and attentive most of the time, but seemingly went missing once or twice.
We chose Insalata Griglia ($9), the grilled romaine salad, and Capriciossa Pizza ($15), with prosciutto, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, olives and a sunny-side-up egg. Cat asked for the Orechiette con Salsicca ($18), little ear-shaped pasta with sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, rapini and canellini beans. (The housemade chicken sausage was out, so she settled for pork sausage.)
I opted for the Vitello Saltimbocca ($23), veal sauteed with sage and prosciutto, served with seasonal vegetables and roasted potatoes.
When the salad arrived, I learned that romaine lettuce can be improved by judicious grilling. A heart of romaine with a patchily charred exterior was topped with roasted red peppers, gorgonzola, toasted walnuts and vinaigrette. I chopped it up and we made short work of it, liking the balance between the faintly smoky foliage and its accoutrements.
The pizza was terrific. The crust was thin and crispy, blackened in spots, heaped with ample toppings but enjoyable by itself, too. Cat found the pitted black olives overwhelmingly salty and removed them. Otherwise, we decided the pizza was worth building a meal around.
Her orechiette pasta was welcome, too, with brothy beans and greens at the bottom of the bowl. The sausage was flavorful enough, and the beans were tender, giving us a murmur of satisfaction, not a shout.
The veal in my saltimbocca was tender, though I expected more flavor from the sage leaves. The roasted fingerling potatoes were precisely cooked, soft but not mushy. Crushed, they proved an excellent foil for the pan sauce.
The unexpected pleasure on the plate was the snap peas. Fresh from Oles Farm, cooked gently and served still crunchy, they were a welcome ray of green delight amid the richness. The menu mentions that the restaurant purchases ingredients from local farms whenever possible, and it made a difference on that plate. "These are perfect now," said Cat.
For dessert, we had the hazelnut torte and an unusual choice, avocado panna cotta.
The torte was a block of fudgy, nutty richness. It would have satisfied both of us at that point, so we hacked off a few chunks and took the rest home. The avocado panna cotta had two layers, white and the faintly green. It was sweet enough, but the avocado didn't add much more than subtle fruitiness. Not unpleasant, certainly.
Overall, Trattoria Aroma gave us an excellent Italian meal at a reasonable price. It eschewed red-sauce cliches, and its careful cooking made me want to explore the corners of its menu.
DESCRIPTION: Italian specialties with rustic flair draws crowds in Williamsville.
WHERE: 5229 Main St., Williamsville (631-2687, www.thearomagroup.com).
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner is 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, pizzas $6-17; pastas and entrees $17-$26.
PARKING: Lots in front of and behind building.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.