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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Trattoria Ponte Vecchio: Classic Italian Cuisine Tapas Style

Trattoria Ponte Vecchio:
Classic Italian Cuisine Tapas Style
(Appeared in Dec. 2010 issue Fairfield County Life magazine)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – If you’re looking for a new spin on classic Italian cuisine, go no further than Trattoria Ponte Vecchio Cucina Italiana. Located at 1275 Post Road near the heart of Fairfield’s downtown in the Brick Walk Plaza, Ponte Vecchio offers old world inspired fare packaged in bite-sized, tapas-style portions.

The concept is the brainchild of Giannino Cavalli, the jovial 59-year-old chef/owner. Sporting close-cropped white hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a soft-spoken manner, Cavalli said, “That’s how we eat in Italy. Small dishes, lots of different things.”

There are an astounding 29 tapas items in all. “We want to give people the opportunity to try a variety of taste experiences. Our menu includes veal chops, seafood, pasta dishes and risotto,” explained Manager Rebecca Del Monte. The most popular tapas offerings are the Crostini Al Caprino (fresh figs and goat cheese over crostini, $7), the Costelette di Vitella (veal chops over mashed potatoes, $9), Torre Affumicata (fresh mozzarella and grilled eggplant, $7) and Gamberi All’aglio (sautéed prawns, $9).

Besides the variety of tastes, there are other benefits to the tapas-style selections said Cavalli. “You can have a full meal by having several tapas dishes. It’s economical and filling. Some people come and order seven or eight dishes and share… and that’s all they need.”

The tapas introduction is aligned with innovations in the lunch and wine menus, as well as an August 2010 spruce-up of the 2,000-square-foot eatery that included a new paint job and furniture, new booth upholstery, seating changes in its private room, added décor and more subtle lighting. These amendments only enhance the charming atmosphere, consisting of white clothed tables, large photo portraits of Venice and Florence, classic Italian music, a marble wine bar and low-lit elaborate sconces.

“People have really responded positively to the changes and new menus,” said Del Monte. Lest their regulars balk though, she added, “We have kept our original full-size meals, too, which our long-time patrons still like to order.”

“A traditional Italian meal starts with appetizers, salad, pasta and then the secondi, which is the main meal,” noted Cavalli, with regard to the other categories on the dinner menu. “In Italy, we also have fruit afterwards and finish with an espresso. It’s a lot of food!”

In the salad department, patrons can enjoy tasty creations like the Waldorf (a mix of greens, apples, dried cherries, walnuts, raisins, cherry vinaigrette) and Rucola Delizia (arugula, tomatoes, onions, almonds, gorgonzola, shallot vinaigrette).

Pastas fall in the $16-$21 range and as Cavalli put it, “No one pasta dish really stands out. They are all very popular.” He admitted to a personal favorite however: Spaghetti all’Aragosta (lobster and shrimp in a pink vodka sauce).

Secondi selections, priced at $20 on average, are headlined by veal dishes like Vitella Delicata (veal scaloppini with shitake mushrooms) and Vitella Milanese (breaded veal scaloppini topped with arugula, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella). Salmone Bianco (salmon in lemon and white wine sauce) and Pesce Siciliano (tilapia) are also popular.

Lunch fare includes a broad range of salads, panini ($7 on average) and lunch specials ($5 - $6.50) like fish, eggplant, chicken and pasta. A unique element is Ponte Vecchio’s Pasta Bar, which allows customers to mix and match a pasta and sauce and create their own dish, for a very reasonable $6 a plate.

Wines are mostly Italian and Californian and many are available by both the glass and bottle including Super Tuscans like Brancaia Tre, Prima Voce and Campa Cieni Rosso. There is also a full bar, specialty cocktails like the Bellini (peach schnapps and champagne) and Pamalini (pama liquor and champagne), and martinis.

Of course, no Italian meal would be complete without dessert. Nearly a dozen options are available from favorites like Crème Caramello (vanilla flan topped with caramel sauce) to Torta Di Ricotta (real Italian cheesecake made with ricotta).

Cavalli’s mother was his inspiration to pursue this line of work. “Anything she made was homemade… pasta, chicken… she raised the animals on her own. I learned by watching, a little bit at a time, and tried things.”

By the time Cavalli came to America in 1972 at age 20, he was “pretty much set.” He joined his brother Giulio at family-owned Luigi’s (also on the Post Road in Fairfield) and they operated it together from 1975 to 2003. It was then that Cavalli started what he called “the Ponte Vecchio adventure” with his wife Nancy and daughter Michela, now 32. The goal was to “provide very authentic Italian cuisine” though adjusted to meet American tastes, with the addition of cream to some dishes. “We don’t really do that in Italy, but some dishes call for it,” said Cavalli.

Family is an important part of the business. “Michela started working with me at Luigi’s when she was only 8 or 10 and was always around me,” said Cavalli. “After finishing school, she decided to come to work at Ponte Vecchio. She’s in charge of the bar, is the hostess, does the bookkeeping. I do the cooking, though occasionally she helps in the kitchen, too.”

Cavalli’s son Paolo, 33, manages two other family restaurants, called Cavalli Pizza, in Irving and McKinney, Texas, providing Neopolitan pizza as well as tapas selections. Zagat rated this offshoot as the best pizza in the country according to Cavalli.

The ying to Cavalli’s yang is wife Nancy. “She does all the public relations, talking to everybody,” said Del Monte. “She’s been 70% of this business’ success. People come here sometimes just for Nancy. They love her!”

Peppy, brown-eyed Del Monte, 23, whose own family owned a restaurant, is also one of the family, at least honorary. She joined Cavalli four years ago while a freshman at Fairfield University. Cavalli values her leadership and people-orientation. The latter attribute is key. “Customers are treated like family. They choose where they want to sit. We want them to be comfortable and relaxed.”

Cavalli claims that “the best advertising is our food” and personally ensures that it is always of the highest quality. “I am here seven days a week. I enjoy doing this. I don’t know how to do anything else. We are really thankful for our customers’ support all these years.”

Perhaps Del Monte best sums up the secret formula though. “Nobody ever leaves here hungry. The first thing Giannino says is, ‘Would you like something to eat?’ He talks to the customers like they’re his best friends, even if he doesn’t know them. He wants to make everyone happy.”

Ponte Vecchio is located at 1275 Post Road, Fairfield. 203-256-1326. For more information, visit

Girls Club Learns a Lesson about Being Thankful

Girls Club Learns a Lesson about Being Thankful
(Appeared on 11/17) 
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – A group of girls got a glimpse at hard times during the Great Depression and realized how thankful they are for their many blessings.

“Thankful with Kit”, a program presented Wednesday afternoon Nov. 17 at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, focused on Kit Learns A Lesson, a children’s story written by Valerie Tripp which is part of the American Girls book series. Set in 1934, it features main character Kit Kittredge, a clever young girl helping her family cope with the dark days of that era.

In the tale, Kit’s father has lost his business and the family is struggling to keep a roof over its head. When she participates with her school class in providing a Thanksgiving food basket to a local soup kitchen, she finds her father there and is determined to help change things for the better.

Kit, who enjoys writing, creates a one-sheet newspaper called “Hard Times” that seeks a handyman and cleaning help so the family can fix up their house and attract boarders to cover their expenses.

The program, led by the museum’s Director of Education Christine Jewell, gave seventeen Fairfield girls ages 7 to 10, who were participating in the museum’s monthly Girls Club session, the opportunity to mirror Kit’s activities.

Creating what could pass as a food basket item, the girls collaborated on making a simple bread pudding. In the 30s, stale bread might be used, subscribing to a “waste not, want not” theory. Each of the girls handled a different step in the recipe, from buttering slices of bread and cracking eggs, to lining the pan and sprinkling raisins on top.

“What a great mess we made over here,” remarked Jewell as she placed the bread pudding into an oven to bake and sat the class down. Of the group, she asked, “Can you imagine not having enough money to live and having to take in boarders? Do you know anybody who doesn’t have a job?”

Many hands went up, signaling that people right here in Fairfield are experiencing their own hard times. When the girls took turns reading aloud excerpts from the book, they identified with Kit’s hardships. With this new appreciation, Jewell asked the group to create their own one-sheet newspapers and express both what they’re thankful about and what they wish.

Released to the gallery spaces of the museum, each girl outlined their project. Kate Burke, 10, a Faith Preparatory School student, wrote that she was thankful for her “pets, family, house and food”. Anna Paulmann, 7, a St. Thomas Aquinas student, was thankful for her “mom, dad and sisters.” Mary Collins, 9, a St. Ann’s student, wished her “family to be healthy.”

Upon return to the main activity room and the aroma of the baking bread pudding, the girls integrated these thoughts into their newspaper creations. With titles like The Katie Gazette, The Corrigan Post and the Fairfield Current, these took a cue from Kit’s paper but also exercised creative talents to include recipes, drawings, newspaper clippings and even ads for “help for hire” and puppies needing homes.

As the bread pudding and cups of lemonade made their way to the table, it was Addie Rush’s paper that may have best expressed the sentiment for the Thanksgiving season. Underneath the title “Happy Family’s” and colorful letters spelling out THANKFUL, Rush prominently placed the message, “I am thankful for my family and friends.” It appears Kit was not the only one who learned a lesson.