Trattoria di' Stagione

(Grand Rapids, MI) — It is restaurant week in Grand Rapids, Michigan! Unfortunately, our end of month schedule is too busy to allow for many visits this year. We’re going to have to choose wisely. The newly opened Trattoria di’ Stagione—where Radix Tavern had once been housed, next to Bombay Cuisine—seems like a good choice. We’re both craving seasonal Italian as we drive to Eastown...

He Fed:

We are recognized immediately by our hostess, who had worked at Reserve (one of our regular haunts) previously. Not a good start. We prefer to be as anonymous as possible during our adventures, to avoid any possible contamination of the experience. Too late for that. Although the restaurant is nearly empty, we’re seated right next to another occupied table. That’s one of my pet peeves, but this time I bite my tongue. Don’t want to make too many waves.

Our server delivers water and takes our drink orders. Juliet opts for prosecco, but I’m eyeballing the taps. An icy pint of Paw Paw KUA Extra Pale Ale hits the spot, malty without being over-sweet and just a kiss of hops. As I’m drinking, I notice some of the tap handles behind the bar aren’t represented on the menu? Come to find out, they may be putting in a wine tap system at some point in future. “We’re keeping the tap handles up just so they look better,” says our server. Fair enough.

With some coaxing, Juliet agrees to order from the restaurant week menu. It’s three courses, and each course has three options from which to choose. For $25, you really can’t beat it, and it’s a great way for the restaurant to showcase their offerings in the hopes of enticing regular customers.

I start with the Eggplant Caponata with grilled bread. We made eggplant at home just a week before, and the skin toughened up unexpectedly, so I’m a little wary as I take my first bite of the caponata. Eggplant can be tricky to cook. Thankfully, this slightly chilled amalgamation of tender eggplant, fresh chunk tomatoes, pine nuts, and cooked onions tossed with olive oil then topped with fresh basil and shards of parmesan is deliciously sweet, nutty, and earthy. I reluctantly give Juliet a taste...a small taste. When I’m done with it, there is nothing left on the plate.

Second course is salad. I know Juliet will go for the Spinach and Goat Cheese with figs so I switch gears, selecting the Tricolor Salad instead. I love bitter greens, and this medley of radicchio, fennel, spinach, and arugula does not disappoint. The dressing is a light, puckery lemon vinaigrette that freshens my palate. Simple, fresh, and seasonal ingredients that magically disappear from my plate. About this time, our server announces that Chef Dan Chudik (formerly of Tuscan Express) got wind that “He Fed / She Fed” was here, and would be around to see us shortly. Gulp.

Our final course is pasta. I am attracted to the hand-made four cheese ravioli (both the pasta and cheeses are made in-house) though I’m sure Juliet will go for it. Again, I play the chivalrous card and get the Penne Pasta with prosciutto, peas, and mascarpone cream sauce. As it turns out, it’s not much of a sacrifice. I don’t get many green peas at home because Juliet doesn’t like them. Now I’m in heaven. The pasta is expertly cooked. The sauce is rich and creamy without overwhelming. And the peas are sweetly delicious. I sip the remainder of my Colli Fiorentini Chianti, savoring the last lingering taste of a great meal.

Though we have no plans for dessert, a gorgeous Lemon Pudding Cake arrives, ringed with fresh raspberries and strips of mint, drizzled with vanilla bean flecked curd. It is compliments from the chef, along with two small shots of house-made limoncello. Somehow we find room for this creamy tart-sweet treat (I’m a sucker for lemon desserts). The cordial is amazing, the best limoncello I’ve ever had; a few sips and it’s gone, making me wish for much much more.

Chef Dan arrives, asking how we liked the meal. It’s no use trying to be coy now; we let him know everything was fantastic. For the next few minutes, he regales us with details about preparation, his hopeful plans for the wine tap system, and even suggests some places to visit in California while we’re attending the LA Food & Wine event. He has a warm, humorous, and humble disposition that makes you want to spend more time getting to know him. Our adventure ends with smiles and a promise to return soon. Trattoria di’ Stagione is on our short list of authentic Italian eateries in Michigan.

She Fed:

Every year I get so excited for Restaurant Week here in Grand Rapids, but then I end up travelling for work and missing most of it. On the rare nights I am home, the last thing I want to do is go out to eat after being on the road. Time at home becomes even more precious and usually I’m itching to get into my own kitchen. If I’ve been working with chefs or training in our kitchens at work, I’m even more amped up to cook at home, armed with recipes and new ideas. By now Jeremy knows not to overcommit for us, knowing I’ll either be tired and begging to eat out or revved up and inspired to cook at home.

Indeed, I’ll miss most of this year’s Restaurant Week again, but Jeremy suggests we hit Trattoria di’ Stagione during a travel lull and I agree half-heartedly. I make darn good pasta at home, sometimes (and by that I mean once or twice a year) even making the dough from scratch, though usually it’s a dried pasta with a homemade sauce. I don’t think I’ve bought jarred sauce in years, having learned how quick and easy a fabulous sauce can be made at home. In the winter I like a hearty ragout with pork or beef, maybe a little sausage thrown in for good measure. This summer I’ve been dabbling with puttanesca and arrabiata, meatless but just as robust and flavorful as the cold-weather sauces.

In any case, my first thought when he suggests Trattoria isn’t “What a nice night out with my husband this will be” but instead, “I bet we have capers, olives and anchovies in the fridge; I could always just whip up puttanesca.” I’m romantic like that. But I agree and am nonplussed as the date approaches. We arrive, find parking easily, and enter a nearly empty restaurant. Admittedly, it is only six o’clock at night, but I’m surprised to see so few people during Restaurant Week.

The hostess seats us and confides that she recognizes us from Reserve, a place we frequent far too often. (I blame it on the wine, the cheese, the charcuterie, and the kitchen talent.) I assume she just recognizes us as regulars, but it becomes apparent fairly soon that she’s familiar with this website and our writings. Our waiter seems to be in on it, too. Which gets me to worrying. We’re just two foodies who like to share our thoughts on experiences we have at eateries. We don’t consider them reviews, just accounts of our one time at a given place.

After we frequent a place, we’ll get recognized. And that’s to be expected given social media’s role in the marketplace. But this marks the first time we’re recognized during our first visit to a restaurant. If I’m completely honest, it’s fairly unnerving.

All my worries are for nothing as the food is incredibly delicious. We order from the three course Restaurant Week menu and I go with the bresaola, spinach salad with figs and goat cheese, and the four cheese ravioli. The bresaola is one of the best I’ve had with the salty air-dried beef, sweet julienned fennel, and fresh (not canned) artichoke hearts—stems still attached. The spinach salad is a monster with gigantic sturdy leaves of earthy spinach, four huge hunks of sweet fig, and tangy specks of goat cheese throughout. I am pleasantly surprised by the ravioli, made in-house daily, stuffed with housemade cheese, and smothered in a creamy tomato sauce. Each course just gets better and better.

The kitchen sends out complimentary lemon pudding cake and two shots of limoncello; the waiter is so proud the limoncello is made in-house that he shares the recipe. The pudding cake is so rich and puckery; it remind me of my mother’s lemon meringue pie...divine!

The chef stops by our table and we enjoy a lengthy comfortable chat about all things food, chefs and restaurants we have in common, and more. He’s genuinely warm and likeable.

I truly can’t say if our service was better than usual or our food prepared with a little more care because they recognized us. The pride our server and the hostess have in the place is evident and well-deserved. When’s the last time you witnessed that in a restaurant?

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