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Dining Out: Ornella: Tasty Italian upstart makes its mark on Astoria

By Suzanne Parker

Even during this pesky recession there seems to be no dearth of hopeful restaurateurs living their dream of a place of their own. A case in point is Ornella Trattoria on 23rd Avenue in Astoria. With one of the most celebrated Italian trattorias in Queens barely a block away, and countless others jockeying for position, it takes some real bravado to jump into the fray.

This restaurant is named for the female half of the couple that owns it, Ornella and Giuseppe Viterale. A mural depicting a typical narrow Italian street covers both walls of this long narrow space. The names of the streets in the mural are the names of the couple’s children.

Giuseppe Viterale is working hard to make this place work. He is the soul of hospitality. If there is something you want that you don’t see on the menu, he offers to make it for you. You would think it’s a no-brainer that any new joint trying to establish its reputation would be bending over backwards to please its new customers, but sadly that isn’t always the case. Here you can count on it.

The menu can be described as regional Italian. Most of the usual suspects are represented with a few more obscure ones for interest. We were particularly taken with a bianca salad. It combined endive, artichokes, hearts of palm, white mushrooms and shavings of Parmesan in a champagne vinaigrette. The flavor was a complex, salty sourness, and the texture downright meaty. It’s a great salad for those who eschew “rabbit food.”

Orella’s does an admirable version of carpaccio di manzo, a plate of beef tenderloin, arugula, hearts of palm and shaved Parmesan drizzled with white truffle oil. The beef was buttery, and the truffle oil lent that heavenly funkiness of truffles. This celebrated beef dish was the 1950 invention of Giuseppe Cipriani, creator of Harry’s Bar in Venice. One of Cipriani’s regulars, a Venetian countess by the name of Amalia Nani Mocenigo, was under doctors’ orders to consume plenty of raw beef. To liven up the countess’ new diet, Cipriani came up with the idea of presenting her with a platter of paper-thin slices of raw beef. He called his creation carpaccio since the colors of the dish recalled the colors of paintings by 15th-century artist Carpaccio, whose work was on display in Venice at the time.

Gnocchi, those versatile pillowy absorbers of sauce are served here with Gorgonzola cheese making them rich, sharp and salty.

The bad news was that neither of our entrees was as hot as it should have been. The good news was that they were both delicious. Vitello boscaiola was a pair of lovely, tender veal medallions smothered in exotic wild mushrooms in a sauce made with red wine, truffle oil and fresh herbs. Sapore di mare was generous with both quantity and variety of seafood, with shrimp, calamari, salmon, white fish, mussels, clams and scallops in a rich, garlicky white sauce. It was served with vegetables and potatoes, but kind of cried out for pasta to soak up the sauce.

We chose a sinful slab of homemade tiramisu for closure. Not to disparage the tiramisu, which was a delight, but they also brought us a complimentary slice of Italian cheesecake that was heaven. Unlike the richer, smoother New York-style cheesecake, this ricotta-based confection has a wonderful, softly granular, chewy consistency that is much lighter than its local counterpart.

The Bottom Line

Astoria folks, and anyone looking for a great Italian meal, should welcome Ornella to the nabe, especially if you like classic dishes made with top notch ingredients and solicitous service.

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Ornella Trattoria Italiana

29-17 23rd Ave.

Astoria, NY 11105

718-777-9477

Price Range: Appetizers: $8-10, Entrees: $18-25

Cuisine: Regional Italian

Setting: Small narrow space, nicely appointed

Service: Attentive and caring

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Reservations: Optional

Alcohol: License pending

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Music: Recorded

Takeout: Yes

Credit Cards: Yes

Noise Level: Acceptable

Handicap Accessible: Yes

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