Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Jan. 18, 2008
Fri-Sat, 11am-10pm, Sun, noon-9pm
Trattoria Lisina13308 FM 150 W., near Driftwood, 512/894-3111
Tuesday-Friday, 4-10pm; Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday, 11am-9pm; reservations accepted
When respected Houston chef/restaurateur Damian Mandola relocated to Central Texas, local foodies paid attention. Mandola settled his family on some property in northern Hays County and busied himself planning and opening an excellent Italian neighborhood market bearing his name in Austin's new Triangle development in 2006. During the same time period, he planted Italian grape varietals on acreage near Driftwood and made plans for the final phase of the project, a Tuscan-inspired family restaurant called Trattoria Lisina. The Mandolas and Houston Drs. Stan and Lisa Duchman are partners in both Mandola Estate Winery and Trattoria Lisina. The impressive stone manse sits on a gentle hill overlooking a formal garden, the west face offering lovely views of sunsets over the vineyard. The entire estate is so naturally attuned to its surroundings, in fact, but for the young vines, it appears to have been part of the landscape for many years.
Our first visit to Trattoria Lisina was part of a ladies' culinary road trip in early December. We arrived just as the restaurant was opening one Saturday and were seated immediately. The large, open dining room has a big fireplace along one wall and is filled with dark wooden tables and tall ladder-back chairs with woven cane seats that add to the room's country charm. Chef John Lichtenberger's busy kitchen is in full view: Homemade charcuterie cures, meats turn slowly on the rotisserie, baked dishes and thin-crust pizzas emerge from a wood-fired oven, while members of the corps de cuisine sauté items and toss pasta dishes with sauce. Customers who sit at the counter are in for some fascinating culinary theatre. On that first visit, both the food and service were every bit as impressive as the setting and the ambience.
Meals begin with baskets of Italian bread, delivered fresh daily from Mandola's in-store bakery in Austin, and bowls of a peppery olive oil for dipping. One of my guests saw an old favorite of hers on the appetizer menu, so we enjoyed an order of Mozzarella en Carozza ($8), pieces of homemade mozzarella coated in crumbs and deep-fried, served with a sauce of anchovies, capers, and olives. The warm, mellow cheese in its crisp crust offered a tasty counterpoint to the salty sauce when smeared on pieces of that wonderful house bread. Our four entrée choices were very satisfying, but the favorite turned out to be the Ravioli Quattro Formaggio ($13), dainty pasta pillows stuffed with four Italian cheeses and bathed in a buttery cream sauce. The absolute winner among the four desserts we sampled also made it to my list of Top 10 "Sweet Bites" for 2007. Bombolini and sfinci ($7) are two varieties of deep-fried Italian doughnuts. The bombolini resembled spice-cake doughnut holes dredged in cinnamon sugar, served with a little pot of honey for dipping, while the sfinci were softer, dusted with granulated sugar, and filled with a dollop of sweet custard. The doughnuts were delicate, warm, spicy, and sweet – the perfect ending to a meal paired with cups of cappuccino ($3).
The first experience was so positive that two of the friends from that same party were eager to return for the next visit. We had been told that reservations are now being accepted and that they are a good idea since the winery and restaurant have become a popular weekend destination. Even though we chose to eat early, the entire dining room filled with many large parties within minutes of our 6pm reservation. A few of my guests started the meal with glasses of sparkling Mionetto Prosecco ($7 a glass), while two others opted to split a bottle of Mandola 2005 Sangiovese ($20 per bottle), a big, food-friendly red. Bread and appetizers arrived promptly. This evening we chose the Calamari Fritti ($9), tender pieces of octopus dusted with semolina flour and spices, lightly fried, and served with a tangy peperoncini aioli and the house marinara for dipping. Curious about house pizzas from the wood-fired oven, we chose one topped with prosciutto and arugula ($11) and were rewarded with a pie sporting creamy fontina cheese covered with slices of the distinctive Italian ham topped with a tangle of peppery, astringent greens and shaved Parmesan cheese. Both items matched well with the wine choices and disappeared quickly in anticipation of our entrées.
Unfortunately, the fact that the entire dining room had been seated with big parties at almost exactly the same time caused some problems. Almost an hour had elapsed by the time our harried waitress returned with our food, and four of our six entrées arrived at the table no better than lukewarm. Rather than make an issue of the problem and wait even longer for hotter food, we dug right in. My osso buco ($22) was marvelous – fork-tender meat in a hearty, wine-rich sauce fell off the shank bones onto the creamy pool of garlic mashed potatoes. The Tagliatelle ai Funghi ($12) was another flavor revelation – homemade pasta and a mélange of toothsome mushrooms bathed in an earthy sauce of mushroom broth, olive oil, garlic, herbs, and a dose of truffle oil. This is truly wonderful food – rustic, robust, and comforting.
One of the treats we had anticipated when returning to Trattoria Lisina was another order of the delicious doughnuts for dessert. Along with some of the regular seasonal menu changes, we noticed that the menu description of the doughnuts had changed, as well. We ordered sfinci ($7) and tiramisu ($8) and experienced another lengthy wait for their arrival. The Lisina version of tiramisu is a large parfait glass filled with a luxurious Italian trifle of espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers and ultrasmooth sweetened mascarpone cheese, topped with shaved chocolate. There was plenty for all six of us to sample and more for one friend to take home. When the sfinci arrived, it was obvious more than the menu description had changed – the little balls had a completely different texture and consistency than the ones we had enjoyed before, and the custard that once was filling was now served along with the honey as a dipping sauce – we found the new version merely acceptable rather than remarkable.
Overall, our second trip to Trattoria Lisina could not have been more different from our first. I certainly cannot fault the restaurant for being busy and popular, and I wish them every success. However, the service issues of that evening need to be addressed. They were woefully understaffed to handle so many large parties all at the same time, and since many people had made reservations, the management of both the kitchen and front of house should have planned accordingly. And after sitting for more than two hours, we were painfully aware that those tall ladder-back chairs really distracted from the enjoyment of our dining experience. There were six women of varying sizes at our table, and the fanny consensus was that the chairs were excruciatingly uncomfortable. We also noticed that the tall backs were difficult for both customers (sleeves and shoulder bags caught) and busy waitpeople with armloads of dishes to navigate around in the close quarters on such a busy night. I suggest the designer who chose the chairs sit in one for two hours, and I'd be willing to bet they become kindling in a heartbeat. I'll plan my next visit for off-peak hours and request a table on the patio where the furniture is different.
Torture chairs notwithstanding, I really love this place.
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