Has there been an Italian restaurant — one with menus and table service — in Westport since restaurateur Victor Fontana's celebrated disco trattoria, Fanny's, in the 1970s? I was pondering that one night while nibbling on a meatball at the Boot, the casual restaurant that Aaron Confessori and Richard Wiles opened in February. I know there hasn't been a disco restaurant in decades, but what about a serious Italian dining room?
I'm leaving out Californos (which offers pasta but bills its cuisine as "American eclectic") and the original Mario's (which limits itself to counter service) and the various pizzerias that have come and gone through the years. No, I think the Boot really is Westport's first sit-down Italian restaurant in decades, since before the days when the storefront housed a retail outlet that sold things like fingerless gloves and vintage accessories to the Westport hipsters of the 1980s. (That shop's operator was Lou Jane Temple, long before she became a restaurateur herself.)
My friend Carol Ann and I were sitting next to a couple of Reagan-era Don Juans one night at a cozy two-top in the Boot. The two lean, gray-haired men probably cut quite a swath in their day, and Carol Ann thought one of them looked familiar. "I might have dated him once," she whispered.
The Boot, you see, serves Italian cuisine but attracts an American-eclectic clientele: There are customers dining here whom you might have dated, might have sort of dated, or might want to date. And the tables are so close together (especially the tightknit line of deuces on the west side of the room) that even the act of eating a thick length of a Krizman's sausage can seem practically carnal when the two people closest to you are staring at you with arched eyebrows. This isn't the place to conduct a revealing or intimate conversation. When the Boot is in full swing and every table occupied, the sound level becomes almost operatic as voices bounce all over the hard surfaces in the room. This makes it almost impossible not to overhear snippets of conversations — one of the most tantalizing byproducts, I say, of dining out.
One night, dining with two friends after a play (the Boot serves food quite late), we seemed to be surrounded by a chorus of talking heads. We just ate quietly without saying a word to one another. I enjoyed it enormously. I could focus on my meal, savoring each bite while mentally dropping in and out of nearby exchanges.
And there's much to savor here. The menu includes seven entrees, five pizza choices and five pasta dishes, and it's easy to customize a dinner: a starter (the short-rib ravioli is as satisfying as any full meal), a quartet of meatballs with sauce and a slab of Farm to Market bread, maybe a side dish of spaghetti or fennel gratin.
In fact, I've tried some of the entrees at the Boot, but I prefer making up my own ideal dinner. I did enjoy the slices of meaty, delicately seasoned, spice glazed duck on a thick, autumn-colored swirl of parsnip-pear puree, but I would probably never order it again. On the other hand, the spicy porco piccante meatballs, made with slow-braised pork shoulder and pickled peppers and blanketed with a parmesan cream sauce, I could happily eat every day.
Confessori and Wiles are introducing a new summer menu soon, but they're not making dramatic changes. The fried stuffed olives (served with fried arancini balls), for example, are on their way out. I ordered the starter three times, and it was never available. "They can't get the kind of olives they wanted," one waitress told me. "The olives just weren't right," said another.
"We finally did get the kind of olives we wanted," Confessori told me later, "but they were too salty." The rice balls, however, are staying on the menu.
Among the pasta choices on the menu, there's an excellent bowl of wide pappadelle ribbons smothered in a fresh pomodoro with basil and chili peppers. And I like the simple spaghetti dish sprinkled with pecorino and a lot of black pepper. Less satisfying is the Boot's version of pasta carbonara. If only its ropes of fusili pasta were flecked with crispy bits of pancetta instead of the pig-jowl guanciale — an unsmoked bacon that has an unlovable aftertaste.
The traditional Italian sausage here, swimming in a puddle of pomodoro and heavy on the fennel (which I love), is a treat. The cinnamon-scented pork sausage (made with Granny Smith apples), though, owes more to the Ozarks than Italia, smothered as it is in a rich mushroom gravy.
The desserts at the Boot are considerably more upscale, including a delectably airy saffron panna cotta that practically floats, cloudlike, in a soup bowl. Confessori says he invented a gorgeously moist slab of pumpkin-and-olive-oil cake, mottled with golden raisins, while cooking with his 6-year-old niece. "I tasted it and thought, 'This has legs,' and put it on the menu," he says.
Most of the dishes I've tasted at the Boot have legs — they're going places. So I hope that Confessori doesn't tinker too severely with his menu. It's nearly perfect as it is. This Boot is made for walking.