There are good reasons why crowds flock to Fratelli’s, the restaurant serving down-home Italian (or Italian-American) fare in a Hampstead shopping center. I’m not sure if I’d wait long in line for the experience — reservations are limited to groups of six or more, so peak evening times may require patience for everyone else — but I understand the appeal.
On the weekend afternoon we stopped by, when getting seated happened to be a breeze, we found the extensive menu tempting, the portions abundant (that’s the American influence showing), the service as affable as it was attentive.
And although our tall booth felt as rigid and unforgiving as the pews in an old-time-religion church, we still appreciated the coziness it provided in the spacious, high-ceilinged room, decorated with some folksy touches to evoke a traditional trattoria.
Speaking of traditional, Fratelli’s proclaims homemade pastas, as well as sauces, a welcome feature that becomes all the more so when you opt for the “create your own” section of the menu. There are seven pasta choices, including gluten-free penne and basil-infused linguini. You then choose from a wide selection of sauces and toppings.
We took a simple approach involving just three elements — regular linguini, Alfredo sauce, spinach — that yielded an entree that tasted very fresh and flavorful.
That pasta arrived nicely al dente. The pasta in a dish dubbed “fettuccine gypsy” was cooked a bit too long, but solidly supported all the other ingredients. Too many ingredients, perhaps. This item would have been more successful without so much going on in it — artichokes, tomatoes, olives, spinach, mushrooms, garlic, olive oil and (not quite enough) white wine sauce. No strong character, no distinctive taste emerged.
The Southern Italian platter, a sample of the kitchen’s oven-baked offerings, proved more rewarding. I wish the helpings of chicken Parmesan, manicotti and lasagna had been easier to distinguish underneath a thick blanket of marinara and melted mozzarella (lamentably typical of Americanized Italian cooking). Still, the robust flavor and texture impressed. And the meat-sauce-filled lasagna yielded an extra-zesty reward.
The menu touts Fratelli’s crab cakes as perennial award-winners. The one we ordered must have been a runner-up. It needed more pizzazz in both the crab and the filling; it also was over-fried, which made it rather dry.
The modest wine list yielded a well-balanced complement to our main courses — a very drinkable, not-too-light-bodied Valpolicella from the Luigi Righetti estate. (By the way, the bar offers a flight of sangrias, extra-enticing during the steamy weather.)
To start off the meal, we took the conventional route and ordered calamari. You get a huge portion here, and only calamari rings, not the tentacles that give some folks the creeps. That quantity is matched with quality, the hearty flavor further enhanced by the tasty house marinara. Fried mozzarella sticks were also well-prepared.
A variation on a caprese salad would have been much better without too-thick prosciutto on top, but a lovely balsamic drizzle gave the appetizer a nice lift.
Meals are complemented by a hefty green salad (flecked with raw onions, cucumbers and jalapenos) and a basket of bread sticks (more like mini-bread loafs) with a light glaze of garlicky butter.
At dessert time, we found the made-in-house cheesecake far beyond the ordinary, a perfect balance of flavor and texture (this was something I’d definitely wait in line for); a refreshing limoncello cake also left its mark.
In the end, occasional unevenness didn’t much matter. Fratelli’s left us sated and impressed with its drawing power.
2315 A Hanover Pike, Hampstead
Prices: Appetizers $9 to $23; entrees $13 to $32
Ambiance: A very family-friendly space with high ceilings, subdued lighting, and a folksy interior design.
Service: Polished and perky
Reservations: For parties of six or more
Parking: Shopping center lot
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes