Review: 4½ stars “Special,” Treva, West Hartford

cuisine:  Northern Italian
entrées: $14 – $28
address:  980 Farmington Avenue, West Hartford
phone:  (860) 232-0407
credit cards:  All major

4½ Stars… Special

Treva In West Hartford Earns Kudos For A Great Yet Affordable Dining Experience

Our grapevine reaches into every nook and cranny of Connecticut. We’re always scouring the state for what’s new and good. Recently, the name Treva has come tripping off the tongues of chefs and foodies whose opinions we respect.

So I paid Treva a visit. Open just since December 24, 2010, the restaurant is situated in the West Hartford space previously occupied by Cocoa Kitchen & Bar, Puerto Vallarta and Edelweiss. We arrived right on time for our reservation, and were immediately directed to the one window table in the front dining room, which commanded a wonderful view of one of Connecticut’s top restaurant rows. “Did you request this table?” I asked my friend who placed the reservation. But he hadn’t. More likely, we benefited from the tendency of restaurants to fill up the windows quickly so they look busy and popular from the street.

Well, Treva is busy and popular, and I definitely recommend making a reservation. Ours was for 5:30 on a Saturday, earlier than I normally like to dine, because it was either that or wait until at least 8:30. And within an hour of our arrival, not only did the front and rear dining rooms completely fill up but so did every tall table and counter seat in the bar area.

The restaurant featured a cream-and-black color scheme with a couple of long burgundy banquettes. Sconces cast pleasing lighting in the bar area. Large unframed photographs of old Italy contributed a wisp of nostalgia to the sleek modern bistro. Hardwood floors were underfoot, while Edison bulbs with visible filaments dangled overhead.

Our window table had a couple of advantages. First, on this busy Saturday night, it was the quietest table in the house. Second, we were treated to a perfect view of all the activity on the avenue. Across the street, we watched Grants’ patio seating completely ignored until gas torches (and presumably heat lamps) were turned on at dusk. At seven-thirty, we spotted what we at first thought was a friendly police officer on foot patrol and then realized was a parking ticket issuer enforcing the town’s charges right up to eight o’clock. I blame the endless stream of attractive young women headed to and from the ice cream parlor a few doors down for the crick I developed in my neck.

But the most amusing development was that, after I had leaned Treva’s large laminated menu on the window sill, couples started coming up to the window to read it. Realizing their purpose, I reversed it so the wine list faced me and the menu faced the street. I felt as if I were performing a valuable public service.

Service was mostly sharp. Wine pours never lapsed, but I took over the job myself to ensure our bottle was shared equally among the three of us. The hostess noticed our table wobbled as she seated us, and got down on her hands and knees to fix it. The kitchen, informed that we were sharing everything, split dishes where appropriate without being asked. On dishes that weren’t split by the kitchen, our waitress wasn’t always sharp about remembering to supply share plates. Water refills occasionally lapsed. But overall, service was quite good, our waitress cheerful and knowledgeable.

There was an imaginative cocktail list ($9-$14), some with unusual ingredients like huckleberry vodka. The draught beers ($5) included Moretti, Perroni, Guinness, Long Trail Double IPA, a Thomas Hooker seasonal release, and Hoegaarden. The bottled beer list ($4.50-$8) included a lot of the usual suspects, but still had a couple of interesting offerings like Chimay Blue, City Steam Naughty Nurse Pale Ale, Long Trail Ale and Anchor Steam.

The lengthy, mostly Italian and American wine list ($25-$145) was one of Treva’s strengths. Twenty-one wines were available by the glass ($7-$14). I tried tastes of a Chardonnay and a Friulano that were also available by the glass, settling on a bottle of the latter. Our 2009 Bastianich Adriatico Friulano, Colli Orientali, Friuli, Italy ($9/$32) was the house’s white wine special, saving us $3 on the bottle. It was served at the correct temperature, and held it well in a marble chiller. Friulano is what for years was called Tocai Friulano before losing a name battle with the sweet Hungarian wine Tocaj. Produced by Joseph Bastianich (son of Lidia), the wine had a nice minerality, well-balanced acidity, and hints of pear and floral flavors.

Good housemade focaccia and Monini extra virgin olive oil with cracked black pepper were served in small round dishes to prevent waste. However, the little round dishes were cheerfully replenished upon request.

We started with formaggi e salumi, which we ordered as a large platter rather than individually, selecting four cheeses and two meats ($22). Our cheeses were a Parmigiana Reggiano (self-explanatory, but excellent), a Robiola (a creamy, soft-ripened cheese), a Fiore Sardo (a firm Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese), and a Caciocavallo (a mild, slightly salty, firm yet supple cow’s milk cheese aged 45 days). Our meats were cacciatorini (thin slices of a small dry Italian salami usually made of equal parts beef and pork) and porchetta (thinly sliced, highly seasoned, fatty pork roast). The quality and freshness of the meats and cheeses was above reproach. Accompanying them was an assortment of fine olives.

Treva also has a Mozzarella bar, offering bufala, fumicatta, straciatella, sheep’s milk ricotta, and the one we selected, a creamy snow white burrata ($10). We certainly enjoyed our burrata, but serving it chilled took away a little of its charm. We would have preferred it served closer to room temperature and with a touch of olive oil and sea salt to bring out its flavor.

Grilled octopus ($10) was beautifully done. Served with sliced potato and arugula and seasoned with a touch of paprika, round pieces of sliced tentacle were incredibly tender and sported a nice grilled flavor. Another winner, two big artichokes ($7) were served upside down in a small, rectangular cast iron pan and seasoned with lemon and caper butter.

A lovely Bibb lettuce salad ($7) was finished with matchsticks of red apple, toasted almond slices, Gorgonzola and a slightly sweet white balsamic vinaigrette that played beautifully off the slightly salty cheese.

Treva means “hand crafted,” and nowhere is that more apparent than with its fresh housemade pastas. Treva offers five, including a ravioli di giorno. Who wouldn’t be sorely tempted, for instance, by ravioli filled with spinach, prosciutto, radicchio and housemade ricotta? But we were unable to resist Treva’s tagliatelle ($18) with veal chunks, mushrooms and asparagus, relishing the chewy texture of the noodles and a rich but light sauce based in veal stock with a little tomato, olive oil, Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano.

We ordered the porchetta entrée ($19), reveling in the rich rolled roasted pork in a rosemary-accented sauce. Brussels sprouts and polenta rounded out this terrific dish.

Treva regularly offers both a bistecca (bone-in New York strip) and a Fiorentina (T-bone strip), but we opted for a Brandt New York strip steak special ($29.95). Brandt Beef is a single-family-owned premium natural beef producer dedicated to humane treatment of its animals and sustainable farming. Frankly, the sliced, blushing pink meat was so flavorful, nicely textured and fat marbled that it recalled steaks for which I’d paid $50 and up. It, too, was served with polenta, as well as perfectly grilled and salted asparagus.

I have been saving our best entrée for last, however. An incredible roasted fish aroma announced the arrival of our whole branzino ($24). I’m not sure which I enjoyed more—the wonderfully seasoned and crisped skin or the sweet white flesh of the fish. We lucked into a larger fish than is normally served as a single portion, meaning my wife and I had enough left over to make another meal out of it. The Mediterranean sea bass was served with large slices of roasted potato and broccoli rabe.

But there’s another part to this fish tale. One can either order the whole branzino filleted in the kitchen or brought to the table intact. We didn’t let the kitchen fillet our fish because we wanted to enjoy the spectacle (not to mention sneak a photograph of the fish for this article). But we weren’t especially eager to fillet it ourselves either, so when the owner happened by and volunteered to fillet it for us tableside, we were thrilled.

We sipped cappuccinos ($3.50) and decaf coffees ($1.95) while trying three of Treva’s desserts, all of which are housemade except for the gelatos. Our first dessert was a tall wedge of ten-layer cake ($8) featuring alternating layers of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse, the exterior frosted with chocolate ganache. Our second was a ricotta cheesecake ($5) that was delicious but not quite as light as some, due to the introduction of a little cream cheese and the moistness of the housemade ricotta. Our final dessert was a torta di zabaglione ($6) with layers of sponge cake tinged with Marsala wine, layers of zabaglione, and a top layer of torched Italian meringue.

As we reminisced about our meal on the drive home, we applauded an upscale restaurant that offered not only great quality but great value. Wine discounts. Desserts that were closer to $5 than $10. A pair of large artichokes for just $7. Sides for just $4. Fresh pastas from $14 to $18. Superior steaks for under $30. A magnificent whole roasted branzino for just $24.

Chef/owner Dorjan Puka learned to cook Italian food in his native Albania before working in Greece, Italy and Germany. After winning the “green card lottery,” he immigrated to the United States in 1998, working at Vito’s By The Park and Max Amore. He then became the sous chef at Max’s Oyster Bar for a number of years. After stints in Las Vegas and Napa Valley, he returned to the Northeast, serving as executive chef at Max Tavern in Springfield for three years. Opening his own restaurant after all of that accumulated experience, Puka has successfully balanced great ambiance, service and food with affordability, resulting in one of Greater Hartford’s most appealing eateries.

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