by Alice Levitt
21 Essex Way, Essex 802-876-6262
To many folks who grew up in Essex, Foodee's was the equivalent of the Max or the Peach Pit. The pimply pizza crusts were unique and the drink case was one of the best around. There were two kinds of grape soda alone! When Foodee's closed last year, a lot of hearts broke.
Could Rustico's, its more upscale replacement, ever take a similar place in locals' restaurant-going rotation? I don't know about other Essex kids, but it now firmly belongs in mine. This is mostly due to one dish: the "Tour of Italy."
"Alice Eats" is all about finding great deals for my readers and, this Christmas, I'm sharing one of the best. For $17.99, the meal for two includes salad and an embarrassingly large plate of homemade pasta — your choice of linguine, angel hair or penne. I've had success with both the linguine and cute, irregularly shaped penne. Rustic, indeed.
The gigantic nests of pasta are sauced in the colors of the Italian flag: green pesto, white carbonara and red pomodoro. Though the pesto always tastes fresh, it tends toward the slightly under seasoned and is reliably my least favorite of the three. That's not so bad when the other two tie for first. The pomodoro is beautifully tangy and coats the al dente noodles perfectly. The carbonara grows in flavor with each bite, creamy, cheesy, smoky and salty. It's so good, I almost forget the addictively meaty bolognese that originally took its place.
Though both avowed trenchermen, my boyfriend and I have never been able to finish the dish, so it's actually more like $17.99 for four meals. That's partly due to the bread with herbed olive oil and extra-large salads included with the meal. Though these are the basic "side salads" at the restaurant, the dressings are far from stock players. All are homemade. At my most recent visit, I tried the blood-orange vinaigrette. Although it sounded promising, I could barely detect orange or vinegar. A parmesan and cracked peppercorn dressing simply called "creamy Italian" was so rich and flavorful that my boyfriend asked our very attentive server to thank the kitchen. To his delight, a take-out container filled with the dressing came with our check at the end of the meal.
If that's not enough to convince you, there are appealing appetizers, too. I've tried arancini — creamy risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella and then deep-fried — and house-made potato chips, which come to the table still hot from the fryer. I tried to eat a reasonable amount, dipped into the warm and mild Gorgonzola dip. Impossible.
On my last visit, I tried a Rustico's original, called "Siena Slippers." Toasts were covered with a bed of arugula topped with prosciutto-wrapped fresh mozzarella. The quartet of "slippers," all drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, resembled distended, meaty rose petals, exactly my kind of bouquet. And Rustico's is my kind of place.