Anyone who has traveled to Italy and had the great fortune to eat even one dinner in Lucca knows that not only is the town a draw in its own right, with its enclosed walls and lovely broad parks, but that its food is also among Italy’s most compelling.
If Lucca is not on your 2017 agenda (or within your budget), Salem can dish up the next best thing: Vittorio Ambrogi, Lucca native and executive chef at Trattoria Orsini, located in the previous Grapevine space at 26 Congress Street.
The former chef of the Grapevine (where his wife Stacy was one of the owners), Ambrogi has created a modern Italian menu that features dishes ranging from chopped salads to grilled octopus to his special “Orsini Meatballs” (veal, beef and pork meatballs braised in Chianti tomato sauce with Cavatelli pasta).
Ambrogi’s accent is as deliciously Tuscan as his cuisine, and he peppers the conversation with “pero” (Italian for “but”) and other Italian phrases. When asked what are some of his favorite dishes to cook, he lets loose with a belly laugh and says, “Risotto and sauce. You can’t go too far from the sauce in Italian.”
According to Michael Gajewski, a Trattoria Orsini General Manager (“I’m really just a glorified busboy,” he joked), although the chef and space are the same as the Grapevine’s, the new restaurant differs in significant ways. Major renovations included adding expanded patio space and creation of a different “look” with new furniture, a sleek bar, and two rooms with cozy tables where diners can enjoy quiet and intimate conversations as well as terrific food.
However, what has remained the same is what makes Trattoria Orsini as special as the Grapevine was. “Having Vittorio and a lot of the old staff back, and of course Vittorio’s food and his nightly specials” are what patrons are happiest about. And of course, everyone is looking forward to spring and summer on our beautiful new patio,” he said.
The new restaurant opened last summer with over 4,000 square feet of interior dining and a 2,000+ square foot patio. Completing renovations, equipment procurement, permitting, staffing and menu production were among the biggest challenges, according to Gajewski.
Among the menu’s most popular items are the meatballs, risotto, arancini (rice balls), shrimp scampi, octopus, cod and, of course, Ambrogi’s famous Bolognese sauce. The chef added the Grilled Octopus appetizer (accompanied by fried black polenta, olives, capers and fresh tomato sauce) as an item unique to the new restaurant. The dish was not on the Grapevine menu, and has been a huge crowd pleaser.
His Pan Roasted Cod dish, while among the most popular entrees, is not really an Italian dish as far as Ambrogi is concerned, because Italians don’t have access to the same kind of fish Americans do. “Cod is not a very popular fish in Italy. It’s not as meaty and juicy as it is here. It’s also a smaller fish,” he said.
While Ambrogi loves cooking and creating inventive and delicious nightly specials, he also likes his days off. Last Monday and Tuesday he took advantage of the recent snowfalls and decided to go skiing at his favorite place, Sunapee, which is “always fun”.
The Tuscan chef has been cooking for over 27 years, including almost 20 at the Grapevine where he developed quite a loyal following. He reflected on his long career and devoted patrons, and added modestly, “We’ve been putting out pretty decent food for many years and we are still doing that.”
Trattoria Orsini is located at 26 Congress Street and is open from 4 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. For reservations, call (978) 594-8048 or visit trattoriaorsini.com.