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New owner puts his stamp on Pete’s

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If you weren’t paying attention, you may not have noticed that Pete’s Restaurant became Pete’s Trattoria over Labor Day weekend.

The old Pete’s Restaurant, a better-than-average neighborhood Italian place on Breen Avenue (just off the Arsenal Street bridge in Watertown) had a devoted and loyal following for more than four decades.

The bar and the restaurant were both popular standbys, so when longtime owner Tom Costanzo announced his retirement there was much anguish among the loyalists.

Not to worry. New chef/owner Geoff Puccia is a Watertown guy, so he understands the regulars’ devotion to Pete’s and he knows Italian food. (Full disclosure: Geoff is an acquaintance of mine — we’ve been involved in several culinary-related events together.) After honing his cooking skills at an upscale Italian restaurant in Charlotte, N.C., Geoff returned to his old stomping grounds, spending nearly five years as executive chef at Ives Hill Country Club and most recently at the Italian-American Civic Association.

He has taken over the place with an eye to keeping some of the old must-haves and introducing the old gang to some new tastes, while appealing to diners with broader palates. Hence the restaurant’s new incarnation as Pete’s Trattoria.

Trattoria is an Italian term for a casual restaurant that enjoys a steady, loyal clientele. It’s traditionally a family-run establishment that offers regional, local and family specialties on the menu.

The new owner has managed the transition with ease, judging by both the food and the crowd in the dining room the night we visited. Whereas the old Pete’s was a pasta-and-red-gravy-like-grandma-used-to-make place, the new Pete’s is more modern Italian, with a wide variety of updated menu choices.

And so much of it is made in-house! The pizza dough? In-house. The pasta, gnocchi and ravioli? In-house. Desserts? In-house. And of course the sauces — in-house. You can still get pasta and red gravy like grandma used to make — if, that is, she made everything from scratch.

Although we entered directly into the dining room, it was apparent by looking through the glass doors to the bar a few steps down that the change in ownership hasn’t hurt that part of the business, either. While the comfortable, unpretentious dining room is freshly decorated, it still retains the flavor of a family-owned Italian eatery.

We began with a bottle of Naked Grape Chardonnay ($24), an unoaked wine from California, as we perused the menu. You can start in your comfort zone with Utica greens, half hots or a Caesar salad, or get a little more adventurous with roasted beet bruschetta, truffle fries or maple bacon Dijon scallops.

Same with the entrees: chicken riggies, manicotti or chicken Parmesan, or push the envelope a bit with pumpkin- and mascarpone-stuffed ravioli in brown butter sage sauce, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp served with butternut squash risotto, chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella, capicola and broccoli, or slow-roasted pork osso buco.

We started out with a pizza, originally thinking of a small one to share, but Tamara, our server, suggested we order a large one ($12) — the dough stretches more and cooks better, she told us. Topping choices are plentiful at $1.50 extra, each. We chose sausage, mixed peppers and fresh tomatoes.

We noticed the aroma as the pizza arrived at the table. Then the first taste — the pizza sauce: bright, not sweet, well balanced — perfect. The toppings were generous and of high quality. And the crust? It was the icing on the cake, even though it was on the bottom of the pie.

Half hots are to Watertown as chicken wings are to Buffalo. Geoff’s half hots ($7) are made with large, locally grown Hungarian wax peppers filled with ground beef, rice and pecorino Romano, baked and served with a generous ladle of homemade marinara. The peppers, two large ones, were suitably hot (more like whole hots), the sauce was excellent.

I first experienced Geoff’s great marinara while working with him in the kitchen at last year’s Bravo Italiano festival. It’s thick and tomatoey with detectable pieces of fresh basil. Really flavorful. He should sell it by the quart to go.

Maple bacon Dijon scallops ($9) were one of the more familiar appetizer selections. The six scallops were perfectly cooked, the bacon uniformly crisp, the maple Dijon cream sauce adding a touch of sweetness.

Frankie’s marrow plate ($8) was an adventure. Three huge beef bones that would make a dog jealous arrived on a platter over an insanely flavorful reduction of beef stock. Parsley and pecorino were sprinkled over everything.

You dug the marrow out with a little knife and mixed it into the gravy, then smeared it onto grilled ciabatta bread. When the ciabatta was all used up, we attacked the loaf of warm, light-textured bread that Tamara had brought to the table earlier. Very good, and fun to boot.

Salads to go with entrees are available for a slight upcharge, $1.50 for a house salad and $2 for a Caesar. While the dressing on the Caesar was a little too subtle for our liking, the house salad (baby field greens, tomatoes, red onion, black olives) was notable for the delicious creamy, smooth dressing that had the flavor but not the bite of balsamic vinegar.

Right about now, a little after 7 o’clock, the place was getting slammed. Every table and chair was occupied, and I dare say the dining room seats more than 100.

We hadn’t bothered to make reservations — hey, it was a weekday night. And glancing at the reservation book on the way in, no one else had, either. But the wait staff looked calm, and somehow Tamara, doing double duty as server and hostess, managed to get everyone seated while still efficiently serving her tables.

Beef short ribs ($23) was great comfort food. Take a generally tough and fatty cut of meat, and slow cook it in wine and stock for hours (called braising), and magic happens. Skim the fat and reduce the stock and you’ve got a gravy to die for. Put the meat and the bones and the dark gravy over rich and tasty Gorgonzola mashed potatoes … it doesn’t get any better than this.

The most unique presentation was the stuffed squash entrée ($15). The end of a roasted butternut squash was lopped off, hollowed out, turned on its side to form a bowl and filled with butternut squash risotto. While the risotto was noticeably past al dente, you couldn’t argue with the taste and the look of this dish. Drizzles of balsamic reduction completed the presentation.

Chicken saltimbocca ($17) is a favorite of those at my table. Geoff’s version rolls boneless chicken breast with prosciutto and sage, standard ingredients, but then sets if over homemade pasta aglio olio rather than a traditional Marsala wine sauce.

We missed the Marsala only for a second. The aglio olio (a simple classic — garlic-infused olive oil) and the homemade tagliatelle pasta was a real treat, and went well with the chicken that for us was a little overcooked.

But the killer was the Sicilian cod ($20), flawlessly cooked fish crusted with rosemary, basil, anchovy and lemon-zested bread crumbs, capped with kalamata olive halves. The crust was unusual and nicely done, and the lemony buttery risotto that came with the dish, one of four risottos on the menu, paired well with the fish but was a standout on its own.

There were so many tempting dishes, we wanted to try them all. After we badgered Tamara long enough, she gave in and let us order tasting portions of house-made ricotta gnocchi with Geoff’s excellent marinara, and house-made pumpkin- and mascarpone-stuffed ravioli with a brown butter sage sauce. Yum.

Desserts were prepared with as much skill and attention as the main dishes were, “a group effort” by the kitchen crew.

The cannoli ($4) was great — a not-too-sweet filling, a crisp pastry and chocolate chips to boot. White chocolate torte ($5) was a very dense, moist white cake with raspberries.

Banana cream pie ($5) was just fine, but our favorite was the lemon cheesecake ($5), a dense and delicious wedge about two inches high with a brown, crusty exterior. No whipped cream, no gloppy fruit — just cheesecake in the spotlight with a sliced and fanned strawberry next to it for accent.

Dinner for four, excluding wine and drinks, came to $165.94 before tip. For those observing a gluten free diet, Pete’s offers GF rigatoni, gnocchi and pizza on request.

Pete’s Trattoria has been open for only about six weeks, but with very little fanfare, word has gotten out. It’s clear that Geoff is a pro at what he does. He’s got the staff in gear and firing on all cylinders.

They’ve struck the right balance to keep the old crowd hanging around and a new crowd coming in. It appears the new Pete’s will be a fixture in Watertown for decades to come.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.







Pete’s Trattoria

111 Breen Ave.

Watertown, N.Y.

782-6640

www.petestrattoria.com



Pete’s Restaurant became Pete’s Trattoria over Labor Day weekend. Watertown native Geoff Puccia is the new chef/owner.



HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday

4 to 9 p.m. Sunday



APPETIZER PICKS: Frankie’s marrow plate, homemade pizza



ENTRÉE PICKS: Sicilian cod, beef short ribs



DESSERT PICK: Lemon cheesecake



RATING: 4½ forks

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