As the husky young food runner approached our table at a huffing, breakneck pace - they don't call them "runners" for nothing - I could see the unfortunate moment unfold as if it were suddenly in slow-motion. Plate of chicken extending. Tilting dangerously. Bird sliding forward. Dark gravy swirling, whirling, rising over the levee's edge . . . .
Splat! A stream of hot chicken juice poured right onto my wife's lap.
It's the kind of honest service mishap that probably happens hundreds of times each day across America - and there's an easy way for a competent restaurant to cope, beginning with apologies, followed by speedy cleanup, more apologies, and maybe a voucher for a cleaning bill.
At Treno in Westmont, we instead got an unintelligible grunt, then watched our food runner lumber off without a word or glance toward a manager (let alone a towel), like a teen avoiding the grown-ups, hoping he won't get busted.
What did I expect from a place where college kids count as the senior staff?
"What did you expect? We're in the suburbs!" my friends from nearby Haddonfield kept telling me, as I winced each time a waitress mangled the tiny wine list or butchered the name of a cheese until it sounded like a communicable disease ("and tonight we're serving 'Ruby-Ola!' ").
Well, that is exactly the conundrum with Treno: my expectations were high! This was especially true after I actually took a bite of that roasted chicken, which was juicy, tender, and bursting with flavor. So were the toothy, house-made pastas, tossed with well-crafted sauces. And the artisan pizzas? Some of those heat-blistered thin-crusts could rival the best of Philly's own pizza renaissance. For goodness sakes, they even grind and cure their own meats for the toppings!
Such refined cookery isn't a big surprise coming from chef Todd Fuller, a longtime chef in Stephen Starr's stable who for five years headed the charcuterie-minded kitchen at Tangerine, where he perfected the recipes and techniques for curing his own fennel-flecked salami, clove-scented soppressata, tangy Genoa, and ancho-spiced pepperoni, which hang by the link in a glassed-in wine room that greets diners at the entranceway to Treno.
They're top-notch examples of the charcuterie trend that's gaining favor around this region - and presumably the ideal indestructible, handcrafted food to anchor a casual-yet-ambitious Italian concept. Of course, none of the servers delivering these rustic wooden platters in Treno's vast dining room has a clue about how to describe them. Not once in three tries did they did get it right. For months now, they've also been describing Taleggio as Robiola (not a disease). Also, folks, provolone is not the same thing as Parmesan. But who's checking?
Settling for such dumbed-down, ditzy service will be inevitable if the management doesn't bother to educate its young - albeit friendly and good-looking - staff. It's enough to make a serious chef bang his head against a marble pizza counter. But I suspect that Fuller was well aware of the challenge of his mission from his bosses in the P.J. Whelihan suburban bar juggernaut - to transform their previously too-upscale and sputtering Kitchen 233 into something casual and affordable, yet still anchored in good food.
P.J's owner Bob Platzer and his crew did a fine job in the four-day transformation of the 110-seat room, knocking down walls to open the bar and reveal a pizza oven, removing the linens in favor of rustic wood-topped tables and curvy tufted-leather banquettes. The enormous 80-seat enclosed side patio, with its opening windows and wall of votive nooks, is an appealingly sleek all-weather lounge space.
Fuller also succeeded admirably in his task, at least on most dishes, turning out a menu of flavors I'd return for at surprising prices that don't exceed $13 a plate (save for some specials). Fried calamari are light and crispy, topped with a zesty "Sicilian" mince of celery, green olives, and spicy pepperoncini that is addictive. Deep-fried chunks of battered mozzarella, layered "alla carrozza" with cubes of bread on skewers, are a grown-up twist on the bar-food favorite - though squeamish customers have finally gotten their side of marinara, after an early experiment with anchovy brown butter failed.
I wasn't a fan of all the pizzas, especially some white pies such as the artichoke and olive, which was dry without a sauce, or the truffled mushroom, which was oily and clumsily built with too many chunky fungi piled at the center. The whole-wheat dough is not suggested, either, unless you like chewing cardboard. But when Fuller's pizzaioli hit their mark, these pies are as good as any, especially when topped with house-made meats like the oversize rounds of pepperoni that crisp up around the edges in the 800-degree oven, or the craggy morsels of fennel-seed-studded sausage, or the tender meatballs of Kurobuta pork and beef touched with rosemary and Grana Padano that took on an earthy depth with the addition of smoked mozzarella.
The house-made pastas, firm and snappy with a touch of semolina, were also impressive. Penne came tossed with a rich and herby tomato gravy filled with shreds of wine-braised chicken-thigh cacciatore. Fra diavolo brought a red sauce over spaghetti that rang with the porky richness of rendered pancetta and a bright, fresh chile heat that gave way to the sea sweetness of lump crab. Classic aglio-olio lent a zesty shine to the penne with crumbled sausage and greens. The pleasantly chewy strands of linguine wore a vivid scampi gloss of garlic-infused shellfish stock and butter - it's a shame the shrimp were cooked to rubber. My favorite here, though, was a warm-weather winner that blended nuggets of rendered pancetta into creamed cauliflower with fresh peas.
For dessert, meanwhile, there are house-made gelati of pistachio and blood orange, marbleized with chocolate in a bowl, if you choose, for a caramel- and candied-hazelnut-topped sundae. The under-sweetened cannoli is just decent. But the tiramisu has an elegant twist: espresso-soaked ladyfingers layered inside a glass between just enough sweet cream with orange zest.
What to drink with such lovely food?
Don't bother asking our waitress, who knew the small list only by menu code numbers (as opposed to, say, the name of the wine or grape), which led to some confusion. There isn't much good anyhow to choose from on this list of cheapo vino, which tops out at $35 and, instead of finding artisanal bargains, opts for commercial swill like Salmon Creek and an insipidly sweet Montepulciano that would give Manischewitz a bad name. Manager Chris Webb, who once watched Kitchen 233's cellar of high-priced Barolos languish undrunk, says that Montepulciano is a best-seller. The $5 wines now flow through this neighborhood pizzeria's veins.
Personally, though, I'd rather opt for one of the good local craft brews, and just take this casual new spot for what it is - a worthy local destination that delivers affordable food with far more ambition than you'd expect, but service that delivers far less.