In Connecticut, land of a thousand Italian restaurants, a new one needs a strong identity. Cotto is a contemporary Roman wine bar: urban, sophisticated, and a bit rebellious. The music is classic rock, not classic opera.
Cotto, which opened a little over a year ago, is tucked into downtown Stamford on Bank Street. The long, narrow room is dominated by a brick wall decorated with black-framed blow-ups of 1960s Rome, movie sets, magazine covers and portraits, all celebrating the Italian actress Simonetta Simeoni.
She's the mother of Silvy Ridolfi, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Claudio. They're from Rome. The murmur of Italians speaking Italian is part of the background at the restaurant, from the open kitchen to the long, wide bar. The wine list (500 bottles, 20 reds and 15 whites by the glass) represents every region of Italy, focusing on Barolo and Barbaresco. This is the place to learn your Nebbiolo from your Barera.
The food is hearty and simple, using few, well-chosen ingredients. All the meats and cheeses are imported from Italy, including bresaola della Valtellini, heavenly air-dried cured beef from the Italian Alps. Porchetta, moist, juicy, roasted pork, is a specialty.
Over the course of two meals at Cotto, the food was consistently on. The burrata, made from cow and buffalo milk, was beautifully presented and great for sharing. The snowy white mozzarella blanketing creamier mozzarella within, was topped with fresh basil leaves and surrounded by silky slices of prosciutto di Parma, roasted red peppers, eggplant, and olives marinated in orange zest, rosemary and olive oil. Bright green baby arugula and grape tomatoes added more freshness and color to the board. This is the way to eat and drink!
Spaghetti alla carbonara, an ancient Roman dish, was served al dente, the strands coated in a sauce of pecorino Romano cheese, egg, pancetta, onion and black pepper. No cream. And no smokiness; pancetta is unsmoked, rolled bacon. It was cut in large fatty cubes that were meaty rather than having been rendered crisp. I liked that. Spaghetti all carbonara is a rich dish, good for sharing if you want to sample more of Cotto's menu. The arugula salad with avocado, grape tomatoes, pine nuts and shaved parmigiano, dressed just right with olive oil and lemon, was a restorative reminder that Italian food is really all about vegetables.
The "Italian Tapas" section of the menu featured such fried treats as like eggplant and zucchini, which is served with two sauces, marinara and horseradish hollandaise. The pizzas have a crisp crust, and include classics (broccoli rabe and sausage) and contemporary ("Norway" with smoked salmon, capers and mascarpone). One of the most popular entrees is the hanger steak with red wine sauce, thin green beans and haricot fingerling potatoes. The night I tried it, every component was spot-on.
To end the meal, a bowl of fresh fruit over mascarpone sweetened with honey was appropriately Italian. And we couldn't resist the molten chocolate cake, delicate and light textured, with a tempered European sweetness.
Cotto Wine Bar and Pizzeria, at 51 Bank St., Stamford. Hours are Monday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 or 11 p.m. Information: 203-914-1400 and www.cottowinebar.com.