Jane Stern: Bartolo is one of Connecticut’s best Italian restaurants

Photo of Jane Stern

Living in Connecticut it is often easy to take for granted how we have the best Italian restaurants this side of Italy. Give thanks to the Italian forebears who immigrated here generations back.

A while back I was in Rome, visiting friends, shopping and, of course, eating. I forget the name of the place but it was a very famous pizzeria. Not a tourist spot but a place where real Romans ate. Of course, I had to make a big fuss about the wonder of it all to the kind people who brought me there, but as I ate the pizza all I could think of at least six places in Connecticut that had better.

Now this is not meant to be a rah-rah flag-waving screed about the wonders of the Nutmeg State, but suffice it to say that having dinner again at Bartolo, one of my favorite restaurants in Ridgefield, made me grateful to live here.

I have eaten at Bartolo many times over the years and never left disappointed. It is the place I recommend to people visiting this area, and I have never heard a negative comment. I guess it is an “old reliable” but that makes it sound stodgy and dull, which it certainly isn’t. It is a vibrant place in every way.

The only drawback to dining at Bartolo is finding the place. It is on a funny piece of real estate near Copps Hill Plaza, where it is sort down a hidden driveway and tucked behind stores. I love this about it, because every time I dine there I think how cool it is that I have gone “way off the map” when in fact I am a stone’s through from Kohl’s and Stop & Shop.

The menu at Bartolo is written on a hanging chalk board. It is a lengthy menu and thus a very crowded chalk board. Like counting the rings on a tree, I can gauge my age by how close I have to stand to the chalkboard to read it. These days I need a front-row seat.

There are two ways I see menus; one way is to scan them and discard anything I do not like. The other way is to scan the menu and have to decide what to order among dozens of dishes I adore. Bartolo is an embarrassment of riches. I always want more then I order, and I order a lot.

The top of the menu is crostini. Here you will find such classic appetizers as warm burrata, with vine-ripened tomato and sweet basil.

An absolute winner is the wild mushrooms served with dark caramelized onions and gorgonzola crumbles. This dish reminds me of the fall and that is when I order it.

Primi translates to the first course. Italian meals are not just one plate of food, they are often five or six courses and meant to be enjoyed leisurely. You could close your eyes and point to anything and I know you will love it but I am partial to the Bartolo Appetizer, an enormous platter of grilled seasonal vegetables, speck, pepperoni, marinated artichoke, olives, beets, fresh mozzarella and grilled focaccia sticks all gilded with aged balsamic vinegar.

Moving on to the salad course, and let me say here a good Italian restaurant will not bring you an itty bitty bowl of iceberg lettuce with a cherry tomato and some ranch dressing. Salads on the menu include a wedge of lettuce with fresh Maine lobster, avocado, gorgonzola crumbles, roasted beets, frizzled leeks and a champagne chive vinergarette; and another with baby spinach, grilled button mushrooms, shaved red onion, spiced walnuts, sliced egg and warm bacon vinaigrette. Is this a throw-away side salad? No way.

Getting even much culinarily serious, we move on to the pasta. Yes, there is a lot of food before the pasta course, but no one will raise an eyebrow if that is all you want to order. My favorite pasta is the very rich wintry wine-braised short rib ravioli, with brown butter, sherry and sage. If I am really feeling wild and crazy I order the richest of all pastas known to mankind, the fettuccini carbonara: broad pasta mixed with pancetta bacon, egg, parmesan cheese and black pepper. It is a relatively streamlined recipe, but don’t forget to factor in a long nap afterwards.

Now for the main course, or secondi as the menu, calls it. This is where Bartolo pulls away from the pack of other very good Italian restaurants and goes for the gold. Not counting specials there are nine main dishes on the menu, one better than the next. This is the part of the meal where I could cry from indecisiveness. Should I get the grilled long bone pork chop with apple fennel slaw, pancetta and mashed sage au jus or the Tuscan stew — a large bowl chock full of jumbo prawns, scallops, lobster, Manila clams, mussels, in a gorgeous tomato basil broth with toasted focaccia to dip in. Even writing this I, am on the verge of a meltdown. What to get, what to get?

Please save room for the wonderful Italian desserts. You may feel you will explode at this point but you will regret leaving without one, and of course the amazing wine list and the espresso Bartolo serves, and of course the after-dinner wines and spirits, and excuse me, but I have to lay down.

Jane Stern is co-author of the popular series of Roadfood guides.