When the door opens onto Porcini's dining room, it is as if someone has pressed a replay button, and we get to watch the same scene from a favorite food movie over and over again.
Diners squeeze into this closet of a room with their bottles of wine in tow, and one of the Sansone brothers steps out from the kitchen into the middle of the room, spreads his arms impossibly wide, and shouts: "My friend! Where have you been?"
Bear hugs. Back slapping. Two-fisted hand shaking. Even the occasional kiss.
I saw this exuberant greeting ritual so many times over the course of two dinners, I began to suspect that Steven and David Sansone had hired an extensive cast of extras to pose as friends.
But there's no fakery here. Porcini is the kind of down-to-basics Italian trattoria that everyone would like to call home. Of course, with so many competing distractions lately, I can understand why some returning customers might suddenly seem like long-lost faces. A seemingly endless wave of other no-frills Italian bistros have popped up across the city since Porcini opened in its Sansom Street nook six years ago, from La Baia near Graduate Hospital to Valentino on Pine Street just east of Broad to Hosteria da Elio in Queen Village.
But Porcini easily remains one of the best - and smallest. The low-ceilinged space is as claustrophobic as ever. That it manages to squeeze in even 35 seats is a feat of spatial engineering, although it creates a frightful din when the room is full.
Even so, there is a familial energy to the boisterous little room that is irresistible, especially when the food is this good. Porcini's menu isn't fancy, but it is stocked with affordably priced pastas and other simple entrees that excel with the careful attention to good, home-style flavors.
Self-taught executive chef Steven Sansone draws on the tastes of his childhood near Buffalo, where he grew up in an Italian family with seven kids, as well as his experiences in several restaurants. And his attention to details is keen.
Consider his wonderful bruschette. The toppings are delicious - meaty sauteed mushrooms glazed in a tangy splash of balsamic; thick pesto fragrant with sweet emerald basil; creamy Tuscan white beans; ripe tomatoes filled with herbs and a touch of garlic. But it is those char-grilled slices of olive-oiled bread that I most covet, thick and rustic, but not so crusty you can't bite through.
Actually, after devouring two loaves of Sansone's mozzarella alla carrozza, I've come to think of Porcini as one of the best bread restaurants in town. This special dish brings a pan-fried loaf of bread stuffed with mozzarella, then glazed with caper anchovy butter. It is the savory answer to French toast, a lightly battered tube of crusty, oozy, tangy gusto.
Porcini's kitchen let a few disappointments slip. Our veal salvia brought some less-than-tender medallions of meat. And the signature pappardelle, which came topped with porcini mushrooms in a brothy sauce, had a strange tang that overwhelmed the prized earthiness of my favorite fungus. And while the desserts were obviously homemade - domed cassata cake, ricotta-filled cannoli shells imported from Buffalo, and gelatinous flan - none really rose above ordinary.
Usually, though, Sansone's cooking was anything but.
The fritto misto brought a perfectly fried medley of fresh scallops, shrimp and calamari encased in the lightest, most ideally seasoned crust. A slice of salmon Positano was sauced with a simple white wine butter that highlighted the quality of the fish.
The chicken breast was overcooked, but the silky dark balsamic sauce that glazed the plate was so addictive - a wood-aged elixir of sweet and sour - it could have made anything taste good.
The sauces here have crisp, distinct flavors that lend real character to the food, especially Sansone's marinara, a quickly steeped, chunky gravy of plum tomatoes that conveyed the essence of freshness.
It added a sprightly, basil-inflected bounce to the pillowy homemade gnocchi. Served beside the low-rise lasagnette, it added a much-needed tang without drowning out the roasted vegetables and herb-flecked ricotta sandwiched between the noodle sheets. Mixed with a dose of crushed peppers, the marinara took on a piercingly delicious arrabbiata spice over hollow bucatini noodles. Softened with a little cream, it bloomed into an aurora sauce over the marvelous cannelloni, whose delicate handcrafted pasta tubes encased sweet ricotta ribboned with spinach.
There was a similar filling inside the ravioli, but it was the delicate snappy skin of those dumplings that made the dish, glazed with a cream sauce sparked with a touch of pecorino cheese, the southern Italian's salty answer to Parmigiano.
My favorite pasta, though, was the penne rustica, an eggless carbonara whose creamy pecorino glaze took on the added oomph of smoky pancetta. It's just the kind of dish I've come to crave from my local trattoria - a notch more involved and indulgent than I might undertake at home, but perfectly rendered here for $12.50. With a complimentary dose of the Sansones' open-armed ebullience, you can't beat the price.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.