Chow Bella

Best Thing I Ate All Week: Peerless Pasta That Seizes the Season

Tagliatelle with lemon from Tratto
Tagliatelle with lemon from Tratto Chris Malloy
When you look at a lemon, what do you see? I see a yellow fruit. This yellow fruit grows well here and in other warm places. Citrus is one of Arizona's 5 Cs for a reason. I see a yellow fruit with a smooth or gnarled rind, an ellipse that yields electric juice, a fruit with skin that, grated, can charge pasta or pastry.

Chris Bianco sees lemons differently.

He sees a local fruit that varies immensely with the seasons. Arizona lemons can be "tight and sour.” Those can be worthless as the centerpiece of, say, a pasta dish. But as lemon season slides toward its prime, Bianco  notes how the inner fruit changes. Lemon flesh and juice become "heavier and sweeter." He heaps praise on this spring's lemons. He says they have more heaviness and sweetness than in past years. Lemons right now, he says, are pretty amazing.

So amazing that, at Tratto, Bianco and chef de cuisine Cassie Shortino have been showcasing them with pasta. Fresh pasta. Fresh lemons.

“That’s one of my favorite combinations,” Bianco says, launching into a rhapsody on the dish. “When the lemons are fucking heavy. When they’re sweet ...”

Bianco is two years into Tratto, a restaurant that takes Arizona’s headiest agricultural products and filters them through a casual but sophisticated Italian-style Trattoria and Bianco’s unique mind. Food seems simple, uncomplicated: food like livers on toast, like chickpea pancakes. But the microscopic details of simple dishes have been dissected, pondered, and tended to in such a way that Tratto's food is actually complex.

The effort is fluent. It is invisible. On the plate, the food looks simple.

click to enlarge Tratto, Chris Bianco's most atmospherically polished restaurant. - CHRIS MALLOY
Tratto, Chris Bianco's most atmospherically polished restaurant.
Chris Malloy
At Tratto, your meal starts with a snack. You don’t order this snack, but it comes anyway. Olives. Cheese. A little saucer of olive oil. Cherry tomatoes from Abby Lee farms. This and a cocktail luscious with house-made apricot liqueur are all you need before a plate of pasta, and together that’s all you need for a spring meal in the desert.

The pasta is coiled in a tight nest. It is tagliatelle, the Caesar of pasta shapes, long noodles traditionally about eight millimeters wide. Bianco and Shortino make a tagliatelle with a little bit of a thicker, heartier bite. The added heft may come from actual thickness — the flat strands look like they have some meat to them — or from the illusion of thickness created by use of heritage grains with personality.

Anybody who follows food in Phoenix knows Bianco has long been celebrated for his use of local, timeless grains. This approach extends to pasta.

At Tratto, the kitchen crew shapes tagliatelle from a blend of Blue Beard durum, White Sonora Wheat, and Two Wash Ranch eggs. Using these grains makes for pasta with more attitude than your typical silky, white-flour strand. Tratto's pasta doesn’t fall to your bite without pushing back a little, without releasing fragrant wheat-field flavors as your teeth mash through.

“That’s the one thing about grains,” Bianco says, on elevating food with uber-flour. “They’re the next thing to be looked at, like meat or vegetables or anything else."

Shortino adds lemon juice to cooked tagliatelle at the end, tossing the strands. It’s made the same kind of way one makes carbonara, using steaming noodles to cook the eggs and create the famous Roman sauce. In this tradition, Shortino tosses newly baptized tagliatelle with lemon juice, olive oil, and Parmesan that meld into a sauce that glues to the pasta, tightly coating each strand.

Tagliatelle historically gets paired with heavyweight sauces. It's the main pasta eaten in Bologna, a city named la grassa cittá, "the fat city." To eat tagliatelle with a bright sauce that coaxes the most from lemon via olive oil's lushness and Parmesan’s umami is a wild thing.

It’s about the lemon. It’s about the pasta. It’s about the gentle crunch of broken pistachios, the slurry of cooked greens, the snow-dusting of grated Parmesan.

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It’s about the lemon. It’s about the pasta. It’s about the gentle crunch of broken pistachios, the slurry of cooked greens, the snow-dusting of grated Parmesan.

This is a great spring pasta.

At Tratto, Bianco features one short pasta, one long. Lately, the short has been garganelli with duck ragú. You know the long.

These pastas change with the Valley’s seasons. If you want, you can ask a server or bartender about making something off the menu, maybe pasta cacio e pepe. At Tratto, this is kosher. But you would be crazy to take this road, to veer away from Tratto’s model and Arizona's seasonal bounty, to sit at that magical bar and eat anything but something like pasta with lemon.

Tratto. 4743 North 20th Street (in Town and Country Shopping Center); 602-296-7761.
Monday to Thursday 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday closed.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy