La festa mobile: Patrizi’s 3-star moveable fest

2307 Manor Road at the Vortex Theater. 512-814-8579, Hours: 5-12pm daily.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.06.14
So it’s come to this, that one of my favorite Italian meals in Austin has sprung fully formed from a trailer window, on a Wednesday that also happens to be Dinner Night at Patrizi’s. On that night, as they do every Wednesday night, Patrizi’s set aside its regular menu in favor of what Nic Patrizi was sketching in his notebook. The drawings are so charming in their pen-and-ink precision that he could always illustrate Williams-Sonoma catalogues if this whole cooking thing doesn’t pan out. But his heritage argues against that: Before the truck, Patrizi’s family ran an Italian restaurant in Beaumont for many years. Their legacy is safe with him, even if it arrives on four wheels.
That night, the menu came in two courses for $15 or three for $20, anchored by lasagna layered with zucchini, garlic, soft sweet onions, eggplant and fresh traces of ricotta, shuffled like a dealer’s deck with hand-rolled pasta. The pasta held a proper tension between the elastic freshness of the mother dough and a tender bite that fell in line with the laid-back sautée inside. It was crowned with broiled mozzarella and a pomodoro both bright and complex, an electric orange sauce with thunderbolts of acidity and a warming sweetness.
(TOP LEFT: Patrizi’s van is decorated with local paintings. TOP RIGHT: House salad, mussels and lasagna pomodoro from last Wednesday's Dinner Night at Patrizi’s. ABOVE, clockwise from top left: One big meatball, sweet potato cannoli, the Wop Burger and Italian-style French toast. Gotta love the Ghostbusters painting.)
The second of my three courses married the paper-plate aesthetic of a food truck with the crisp lines of proper kitchen technique. Mussels, butter, wine, lemon, shallots. A simple formula, but one so hard to get right. But Patrizi’s got it right, with tender mussels in a decoction both rich and astringent, with enough juice left over for a slow pass of bread like a plow through savory fields.
Before the mussels and lasagna came Patrizi’s house salad, a well-turned chop of Romaine lettuce, grana padano cheese and a potent giardiniera like a garden marmalade, bursting with red pepper and garlic. Afterward came a surprise fourth-course ending for the three-course dinner: a crisp cannoli shell filled with a local harvest of sweet potatoes whipped like wedding cream, finished with sage oil and cranberry gastrique for a sendoff as warm as the people who made it.
I was struck by the cordial professionalism of the crew, by the kitchen and floor staff (well, deck and awning staff) in kitchen whites, by the speed and easy formal style of the food delivery. The cooks stood beside the menu board to answer questions. Chimineas burned for warmth against the cold night, tables were set with wine bottles and candles, and a mix of Edison bulbs and soft red string lights glowed overhead. In the fenced complex that the truck shares with the Vortex Theater and the speakeasy Butterfly Bar, Patrizi’s is an escape from the thundering herd of the day — and from our low expectations of Italian food in this city.
(ABOVE, clockwise from top left: A side of roasted beets and a half-portion of pasta with Patrizi’s red sauce and a meatball add-on; the staff explains the menu for customers; pasta carbonara with bacon and egg; the covered dining area includes tables with the nameplates of donors to the restaurant’s Kickstarter campaign.)
A followup visit provided an equal mix of righteous confirmation and reality check. Confirmation in roasted beets and ... French toast. Both dishes were finished with ricotta as full-bodied as cheesecake and a shower of lemon zest to keep it in balance. On the beets ($5), the balancing act brought further to earth the heartblood vegetables, bright with oil and the lingering snap of the recently rooted. The Italian-style French toast ($5) was offered as a dessert, but a tart balsamic syrup brought the soft, custard-glazed bread to an almost savory place, a place where ribbons of basil grew through the sweet finishing notes.
Patrizi’s will add a meatball to any dish for $4, a meatball so big you might call it a meatloaf, rendered in tender, large-grind relief against a fragrant canvas of herbs, onion and garlic.
Cut in three, the meatball also anchored what Patrizi’s calls the Wop Burger ($6), but what I call one of the best meatball grinders in the city, layered across angel-wing ciabatta with Patrizi’s snarling orange giardiniera and its American-style red sauce, sweet and thick enough to stand a plastic spoon.
As drunk as I was with those discoveries, the pasta carbonara ($11) came with a reality check. Practically animated by chopped bacon and shavings of grana padano, the ribbons of pasta lay on the plate in that angsty tension between going out and staying on the couch, and the couch was winning. It was a sluggish study in separation anxiety unbroken even by the integration of a silken egg yolk that finished the dish in sunrise splendor. The pasta gave a similarly sticky showing under a blanket of red sauce in a $6 half-portion. A dealbreaker by no means, the overworked pasta was nevertheless a break in the euphoria set up by everything else about Patrizi’s.
On the bright side, a break in the euphoria gave this exceptional restaurant — I can’t just call it a food truck — room to improve, a goal to chase. And that gives me an excuse to come back.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)