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Intriguing menu, charm and creativity are a delight

SANTA FE, N.M. — Settling into our wonderfully comfy chairs at Trattoria a Mano, my guest and I had a Wizard of Oz moment. It didn’t feel as if we were in Santa Fe any more, she commented.

That may be a minus for tourists looking for a Southwestern experience, but marvelous for locals seeking a mid-winter escape. The aim with the decoration is apparently to transport diners to Italy. Since I’ve never been there, I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but I can attest to its charm and creativity.

Main themes seem to be fashion and bicycles – and a time somewhere around the 1950s.

Tony Bennett was leaving his heart in San Francisco when it was still quiet enough to hear the piped music. Montages of high fashion for females of the era were displayed behind window-like wrought iron grilles. Actual clunky, one-speed bicycles had artificial plants and flowers spilling from their baskets.

And, my favorite, stringed rolling pins were arranged in the manner of a beaded half-curtain, framing the opening into the kitchen, which ran most of the length of the main part of the room.

The room itself was pretty narrow, leading to one of my few complaints: The tables for two had to be quite narrow to accommodate the space, so the compensating length put you some distance away from your companion. We still managed to converse, but it would have been nice to be a tad closer.

But on to the food, which featured antipasti to start, with pasta (made on the premises) choices and hearty entrees following.

A confirmed fan of squid, I started with the calamari fritti ($14). The rings were heavy on the breading, so the taste of the calamari itself was somewhat overcome. But arugula was mixed throughout the mound of calamari, making it somewhat like a salad, and the lemony aiöli was marvelous. Despite the frying, the dish was not oily or greasy.

My companion ordered the zuppa di fagiole ($12), a satisfying, somewhat peppery combination of cannellini beans, small pieces of sausage, roasted garlic and cured tomatoes. And, she noted, it came to the table piping hot – a major plus. I often find restaurant soups to be too salty for my taste, but that was not the case here.

We were both pleased to see that the pasta dishes came in both half- and full-plate options. I ordered the small size of fusilli with artichokes, porcini mushrooms and leeks ($15). Those accompaniments came in pleasingly hearty chunks. Flavorings included white truffle oil, with pecorino gran cru (an aged cheese) sprinkled over the top. I also detected some lemon. The dish was rich and full-bodied, and even at a half size I was able to take some of it home.

Roasted monkfish was my guest’s choice. The fish was moist and tender – perfectly cooked, with the thinnest of crusts on the top. It came atop a flavorful combination of beluga lentils mixed with pancetta and parsley. Two fillets were included in the appropriately sized portion.

Steak, veal, pork shank and more are included in the entree options, while eight choices are listed under the pasta. While the menu is small, its variety should yield something to satisfy any diner.

And we couldn’t resist dessert. The raspberry pear zabaglione caught our eye – and our hearts.

The pears were soaked in and accompanied by a port wine reduction that was deep and dark – the palate’s version of a visit to the lair of the phantom of the opera, accompanied by bass notes on an organ. Oh, yum! The flavor was lightened by a creamy pistachio gelato, along with fresh raspberries scattered through the dish.

With its variety of intriguing menu offerings, we wouldn’t mind at all returning to Trattoria a Mano and sampling more!

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