Onesto Pizza and Trattoria is a neighborhood restaurant, the only commercial structure at the intersection of Macklind Avenue and tree-shaded Finkman Street. On a busy weekend evening, it can resemble a block party as those awaiting a table stand along the sidewalk or sit on plastic chairs on the front lawn, sipping wine or beer and eyeing the half-finished pizzas on the patio tables. On a recent Friday, I even saw two scrawny rabbits munching grass on the neighboring lawn, ignoring — or maybe blissfully oblivious to — all the human hubbub.
"Someone should tell the kitchen about the bunnies," I said to my wife.
She rolled her eyes.
The hubbub continues inside the restaurant. You enter into a waiting area, a very small space shared by a couple of tables with stools, the pizza prep station and oven, the salad prep station, the dessert case, the cash register, a refrigerator with bottled beer and a few beer taps.
The dining room is less hectic — though the tables are close together, and when it's busy the space can be loud. The décor might remind you of your favorite casual Italian joints past: yellow walls with framed pictures, red pressed-tin ceiling, checkerboard tile floor. The large windows look out on the front lawn. There are quirky elements: a unisex restroom with a Betty Boop theme, the Star Wars Pez dispensers and action figures atop the pizza prep station. I especially like the old sideboard that holds various service items, from napkins to wine.
Onesto is the new project from Vito and Michele Racanelli. Most recently the Racanellis operated Big V's Burger Joint in the Market in the Loop's indoor space in University City. Big V's gained a substantial following for its dedication to fast food done right. (I shaved years off my life thanks to "The Animal," three beef patties with onions, jalapeños, bacon and barbecue sauce). However, Vito also has a background in fine dining: He's a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and has worked at top-tier hotel restaurants in New York City; he and Michele currently also own a catering company.
Onesto, which the Racanellis and partners Craig Stenson and Seth Berkowitz opened in April, falls between those two poles. There are sandwiches, calzones and stromboli that recall the glory of East Coast, Italian-American corner joints, and there are daily specials right out of the New American bistro playbook.
The pizza manages to straddle both worlds. Vito Racanelli is the brother of Racanelli's founder John Racanelli, and Onesto's pies are definitely of the New York school — thin, but not too thin, crust and lots of sour-tangy mozzarella — but here you notice the quality of ingredients and preparations. The crust is baked in a brick oven; it has a soft chew and a crisp (though not blackened) bottom. The sauce has a very mild sweetness and is spread judiciously atop the crust.
You can build your own pizza from the lists of regular and "gourmet" toppings, or you can choose one of the restaurant's own constructions. I took the latter course. While the "Gut Buster" (a dozen toppings, plus extra sauce and cheese) was tempting, I stuck to what I thought would be more manageable fare.
The "Classic Spinach Pie" resembles a plain cheese pizza. Spread across its surface are lumps (for lack of a more artful term) of ricotta, Parmesan and Romano cheeses blended together with spinach and a little garlic. The individual lumps are delicious, with a piquant flavor and a creamy texture, but I preferred to spread the mixture around each slice rather than encounter it all at once.
The "Mad Cajun" features shrimp, andouille sausage, roasted peppers and jalapeños. I have always been wary of pizzas with seafood — something about combining shrimp or whatever with all that cheese just turns me off — but this pie I dug. The shrimp were cooked perfectly, tender and buttery, but the real key to the dish was those jalapeños. Fiendishly hot, they bridged the traditional pizza elements with the Cajun motif.
My favorite pizza was the "Smoked Chicken" pie, Onesto's take on the barbecue-chicken pizza — or, as I like to call it, the Dreaded Curse of California Pizza Kitchen. As with the "Mad Cajun," Onesto's take on this dubious concept blew me away. Along with the chicken, which is smoked in-house, the pizza features roasted jalapeños, caramelized onions, bacon, cheddar and mozzarella cheeses and the restaurant's own "Booyah" barbecue sauce. My main complaint with barbecue-chicken pizzas is that the barbecue sauce sucks — so sweet as to be no different from ketchup or canned pizza sauce. But the Booyah is rich and tangy and pairs perfectly with the smoky chicken.
Besides pizza, the menu offers salads and simple, hearty pasta dishes (spaghetti and meatballs, rigatoni with sausage) in your choice of single-serving or "family" size. Appetizers include the "Bronx Roll," which is like a miniature stromboli: thin slices of salami, pepperoni and mozzarella baked inside a golden-brown crust. The arancini is a single fat ball of white rice, Parmesan cheese, ground beef and tomato sauce, breaded, deep-fried and served atop a thick ragù. Though the daunting dimensions of the arancini diluted some of the pleasure of combining the crisp shell with the creamy interior, it was still a tasty dish.
You might come to Onesto intending to order pizza, but do listen when your server recites the day's specials, for it is here that the kitchen displays the full range of its talent and creativity. On one visit the special appetizer was a scrumptious fritto misto of mushrooms, eggplant and halibut, the fish so plump and perfectly fried that it could have been served with French fries as a fish-and-chips entrée.
On another visit a friend and I each ordered the special entrées. I had rainbow trout, the skin of whose two fillets had been rendered crisp and golden-brown. They were served atop a tomato-corn risotto — a little heavy on the corn in terms of texture, but flavorful — in a pool of a tart, magenta sauce. The sauce paired well with the fish, adding an acidic note in much the same way a squeeze of lemon juice would, but as much as I chased it around the plate, I couldn't pin down the vaguely familiar flavor.
"A pomegranate beurre blanc," a server informed me.
Inspired. My friend's entrée special, housemade tagliatelle in a veal ragù, wasn't as successful. The veal was tough, and the sauce as a whole had a washed-out quality.
The dessert selection includes an excellent tiramisu, as light as a cloud and with the ideal balance between sweetness and rum's sophisticated savor. The beer and wine selections are small, with crowd-pleasing selections befitting the restaurant's casual nature. Service can be scattered, given the crowds and the small confines, but the staff is friendly. When a second beer was delayed owing to a keg change, the server comped it even though I hadn't said a word.
Onesto is a neighborhood restaurant in the best sense: appealing not just because it's there, but because it compels you to return to see your neighbors and friends and what specials Vito Racanelli and his staff are serving.
Might I suggest a fricassee of rabbit?