[from February 2004 issue]

For weeks, a friend urged me to have dinner at Pesto, the comely Italian newcomer to upper Connecticut that has replaced the charming if slightly odd Mrs. Simpson’s restaurant. It’s one thing to be a royal watcher, but something quite different to dedicate an entire restaurant’s décor to the resolute Wallis Simpson of King Edward VIII’s fame. Gone and almost forgotten, Mrs. Simpson’s has metamorphosed into something quite different, though wouldn’t you know it--one or two pictures of her still remain.

So recently, a group of us met in the now-Italianized quarters that have become Pesto, and found that, somehow, this restaurant has not yet caught on, though it’s been in place for about a year. Could be that Mrs. Simpson’s ran beneath the city’s culinary radar anyway, so what happens here is of little consequence. On the other hand, Pesto is one of those rare places that you wish would be filled with jovial patrons, toasting each other and ordering up large plates of tiramisu.

The truth of Pesto falls somewhere in between anonymity and overcrowded. Although it was a Monday night, never the best for attracting crowds as the work week begins, Pesto was essentially empty. Well, almost--a group of businessmen had taken over the back dining room for a pre-dinner meeting, and they exited as we sat down. And except for a young couple who dropped in mid-meal, we were alone.

Crowded or empty, I suspect the service here would remain steadfast and courteous, so that can¹t be faulted. Perhaps the menu lacks appeal. It certainly is minimal enough to limit hungry patrons’ appetites: a few antipasti, a few pastas, and a few entrées make up the sum total of edibles here. And of the entrées, at least three--the grilled Atlantic salmon, the breast of chicken with red peppers, and a grilled Angus steak--don’t necessarily summon up thoughts of Tuscany. These could be Anywhere foods. Indeed, my braised lamb shank, or stinco di agnello brasato, with a mountain of orzo lacked depth of flavor--where’s the garlic??--and with its diminutive size, seemed that there was more orzo than meat.

But the antipasti and pastas are a different matter altogether. With these, the kitchen steps forth in a blaze of glory, doing itself proud with such starters as thin strips of cooked eggplant tucked around a filling of prosciutto, gorgonzola and tomato. This dish is simple and self-assured--how can anyone go wrong with such a combination anyway? The cooks also experimented with an extravagant offering of wild boar sausages with spinach and balsamic vinegar, a lusty pairing we exclaimed over. But why, then, insert on the menu a classic Caesar salad, an overblown Californian creation that has really seen its day? As for pastas, at least two stood out for their ingenuity: the farfalle with prosciutto and mushroom sauce and the spinach and ricotta ravioli with a tomato and basil pesto. But another puzzle: Why something so unimaginative as shells with meat sauce--unless, of course, the meat was lamb, wild boar, or roast goose?

That management has big ideas stands out when you hear that the owner has hired a pastry chef, a sure clue that someone intends to delight and impress. Because it’s Italy’s classic dessert, we opted for the pastry chef’s version of tiramisu, which appeared in a small glass compote and looked like more froth than substance. Of course, one dessert shared five ways can’t go too far, so I may have missed a key element. I was hoping for a wedge of sponge cake tucked under a tower of whipped mascarpone instead.

But for Pesto, it is still relatively early days, and the staff clearly cares about the product. Although the menu stays the same, except for daily specials, I’d be willing to return to sample more of the appetizers and pastas.

Pesto, 2915 Conn. Ave.; 332-8300. Open for dinner daily. Entrées: $17-$19.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for The Washington Post and The Washington Times, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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