And out of that oven, which perfumes the restaurant's parallel dining rooms with the fragrance of baking dough and smoldering apple, hickory and almond woods, come eleven kinds of pizza. Mercifully, not one of them resembles the molten globs of cheesy cardboard delivered in boxes or, worse, the greasy squares of cholesterol that have somehow become a food staple in every high school cafeteria in America.
In fact, this pizza must come as close as any to the Neapolitan delicacy that American servicemen first discovered during World War II: a crust shaped by hand, baked crackly thin and topped with a soft mozzarella the Avellutos make in their own kitchen. Two of the pizzas are even made without cheese, topped simply with olive oil and oregano (which is excellent with Il Trullo's fine salad of peppery arugula and sweet cherry tomatoes) or just splashed with fresh-tasting marinara.
But Il Trullo's reputation -- unlike that of Italian Delight, the Avellutos' far more casual restaurant in Mission -- has less to do with pizza and more to do with the regional Italian cooking traditions of Puglia and Campania. It's a simple culinary style, but so different from the corporate Southern Italian fare served by the Olive Garden, Zio's and Buca di Beppo that fans of spaghetti and meatballs -- which are not on Il Trullo's menu -- may find it as exotic as Indian biriyani or Thai curry.
And that's fine with the Avelluto family. The Fazoli's crowd might look warily at a plate of Il Trullo's splendid homemade cavatelli with sausage and wild fennel. But hell, if you're going to go out to eat, why not eat something you can't make at home -- such as a gorgeous dish of rustic, handmade pasta tossed with diced purple eggplant, zucchini and peppers in a tomato sauce so light and flavorful, it bears no resemblance to anything with the words "tomato" or "sauce" in the title.
This is an Italian restaurant that looks, smells and tastes like no other in the city. The six-year-old Il Trullo is far too urban and sassy to be stuck in a shopping strip anchored by a Service Merchandise and a TJ Maxx. But in addition to the chain stores, the frozen yogurt shop and the craft store, there also are Mexican and Indian restaurants and a tiny Indian market.
That's where my dining companion Lou Jane had stopped to pick up some imported henna for her fiery-red hair before joining me and singer Queen Bey at Il Trullo. Plopping down with a goblet of red wine, Lou Jane regaled us with tales of her trip to Napa and watched, with some amusement, as I polished off an entire basket of the restaurant's crusty bread, spread lavishly with a dark tapenade of chopped olives -- oily kalamata and plump purple gaeta -- finished with a splash of fresh lemon juice and a dash of cognac.
"I'm starving," I said sheepishly between bites. "I've been waiting all day for this dinner."
The previous week, I had enjoyed an equally sensuous frittata appetizer (an airy little omelet cooked with fresh greens, it's since been removed from the menu; Joe Avelluto Jr. said I was one of the few diners who ever ordered it) and an excellent sautéed tilapia. It was the kind of dinner that made me impatient to get back to the restaurant.
I've had many good dinners at Il Trullo over the years, but I have noticed some changes since Avelluto and his three elder sons expanded the dining room and tripled the size of the kitchen: The service is a lot more polished and attentive, and the place bustles with a pace and energy it never had before.
From our table, Lou Jane and I could watch John Avelluto overseeing the kitchen and Joe Jr., dressed in waiter's black-and-white, minding the dining rooms. And there's a lot of action going on in the two narrow rooms: servers dashing by with bubbling pizza pies pulled right out of the oven, big tables of friends noisily clinking wine glasses, young couples huddled over plates of fried calamari.
And what calamari! Lightly breaded, fried crisp and feathery and drizzled with tart, slightly sweet balsamic vinegar and chopped fresh mint, this ordinary squid seemed sublime. Queen Bey -- an unabashed spaghetti-and-meatballs kind of lady -- looked askance at the calamari and kept spreading tapenade on her bread. She said she'd never understood the passion for Italian food until she stumbled into an elegant little joint in New York City's Little Italy late one night after performing at Michael's Pub.
"Honey, they brought out things I had never heard of before or since," she said, brightening up when the server arrived with an earthenware dish filled with a steaming appetizer of fresh mozzarella wrapped in paper-thin slices of prosciutto and smothered with San Marzano plum tomatoes. "And all those handsome waiters fussing over me. By the end of the meal, baby, I knew I could marry an Italian."
We all downed the mozzarella with crusts of bread, and Lou Jane and I watched Queen Bey flirt with the handsome servers. "Mediterranean men love me," she said with a wink.
Lou Jane wondered why at most good restaurants "the appetizers are always the best thing." But we discovered that at Il Trullo, the best was yet to come. We passed on a lovely plate of mixed field greens in a red wine vinaigrette, deciding instead to share a pasta dish as a lighter course before secondi piatti, the main event.
And Dante would have been inspired to wax even more poetic over Il Trullo's wheat-and-egg tagliatelle topped with a sauce of ground chicken and cooked tomatoes, garnished with a stack of lightly sautéed green beans. It was an unusual dish for Queen Bey, but she finished it as fast as I did. And then, presented with great show, the second act: a plate of exquisite little grilled chops, lightly marinated in balsamic vinegar, fresh mint and garlic and arriving at the table so juicy and tender that it felt sinful to eat them with such gusto.
But we kept on sinning when it came to dessert, with a lemony panna cotta custard dappled with a purée of fresh strawberries and a generous square of creamy tiramisu pastry, which had a nice kick of espresso mixed in with the layers of sponge cake and whipped marscapone. It more than lived up to its literal translation ("pick me up"), yet I was so perfectly content, I would have happily rolled right into bed.
Il Trullo does such magic with the regional dishes of Puglia and Campania, it was easy to believe I was dining right there, on the coast of the Adriatic, instead of on the edge of a giant parking lot.