Everyone at my table was considerably older — and noticeably less tattooed and pierced — than your average Westport denizens.
Still, our server led us to a prime table near a street-side window, then suggested we might want to get the party started with a bottle of cava. As she opened the bottle’s wire cage, we noticed she had an interesting tattoo that looked like it had been lifted from the periodic table of elements.
“It’s the chemical formula for love,” she told us. “Good thing I didn’t get his name tattooed on my arm!”
“She’s just the cutest thing,” Idabeth, the mother of three grown daughters, clucked approvingly as our server left us to sip our bubbly from champagne saucers and study the menu.
The Boot, which opened in early February, is a new Italian concept by budding chef/owners Aaron Confessori and Richard Wiles and the next-door neighbor to the Westport Café & Bar, a French bistro they opened in 2010. The duo also has a food truck concept that set up shop behind Harry’s Bar & Tables last summer.
The most striking feature of the dining room is a community table that runs up the center and seats up to 18. On a Saturday night that table filled up quickly with several groups of diners rubbing elbows. Exposed brick walls are decorated with long wooden ladders hung horizontally to provide shelving for votives and bud vases. Red-and-white checkered flounces frame the front window, and diners sit in simple yet comfortable tomato-red modern hoop chairs that resemble something from a CB2 catalog.
The menu is designed for casual dining with antipasti, pizzas, pastas, meatballs, sausages and a handful of simply prepared entrees flexible enough to sate both hearty and dainty appetites. Unfortunately, the owners will need to work on the kitchen’s lack of consistency. Some dishes, like the meltingly tender short ribs served over a creamy polenta, were stellar. Others, like the skate wing in brown butter, were way off the mark.
After two lunch and two dinner visits, I found the antipasti one of the strongest sections of the menu. I ordered the hand-pulled mozzarella, beet and mushroom salad, which sounded a bit odd until the plate arrived and I realized it was essentially a play on the traditional Caprese salad, replacing the tomatoes with burgundy beet slices.
I also highly recommend the sheep’s milk ricotta from California with thyme, oregano and a drizzle of olive oil. The curds were served in a shallow wooden bowl with a basket of bread. The bread was nothing special, so save the carbs and eat the dreamy ricotta, which was drizzled with Turkish Marash chili flake-infused green olive oil, with your fork.
The squid salad — lightly dressed arugula with pieces of whole, breaded squid — was dotted by sliced cherry tomatoes and stray cannellini beans. The arugula salad with parmesan and lemon was so simple yet satisfying. A tangle of arugula also crowned the pounded slices of beef carpaccio, garnished with capers and a few cannellini beans.
The short rib ravioli antipasti was a mostly satisfying appetizer. Pillows of dough were stuffed with braised meat and covered in a light tomato-cream sauce. The entrée of agnolotti al plin, “pinched pillows” of pasta filled with parsnip, pear and tarragon, was also delicious. But both pasta dishes served that night were cooked just a shade under al dente.
On another visit, the fusilli in the carbonara was ever-so-slightly beyond al dente. Nevertheless, with its yolk of a just-set egg and salty bits of guanciale, it was deemed “lick-my-plate good” by my friend Stacy.
I encountered the same sort of inconsistencies with the pizzas. The first night, the spinach pizza’s crust was heavy, almost leaden and unappealing. But on another visit the vongole, an intriguing red sauce pizza topped with clams still in their shell, was served on a notably lighter Neapolitan-style crust baked in a double-decker gas pizza oven. Too bad the clams were gritty.
I also ordered meatballs as an appetizer on two occasions and found the texture tough both times. “They need to melt in your mouth,” Idabeth said. The Italian sausage from Krizman’s was served less than piping hot in a slightly watery tomato sauce. Oh well.
The beef short ribs with polenta was the best entrée I tried. The tender meat and braising juices were ladled over a luscious bowl of ultra creamy polenta. The combination was enticing, even on a warm spring evening when most appetites were transitioning to lighter fare.
When I dined with Chelsey, a young culinary student with a tattoo, we ordered the spiced, glazed duck and the skate.
“The duck is properly cooked,” Chelsey noted, although I found the meat a bit tough.
Chelsey was more distracted by the parsnip and pear puree oddly studded with paper-thin pieces of dried pear. She insisted it tasted like dessert rather than an entrée, although I thought it worked.
But we both agreed that something was not quite right with the skate. The fan of fishy flesh swam in a pool of brown butter accompanied by al dente stalks of broccoli rabe and toasted hazelnuts.
Chelsey immediately detected a “chemical” taste. I tasted ammonia accompanied by an unpleasantly mushy texture. Ammonia is usually a byproduct of spoiling. But “The Food Lover’s Companion,” by Sharon Tyler Herbst, indicates an ammonia smell is common to skate wing. To remove it some cooks suggest soaking in acidulated (lemon or vinegar) water before preparation.
Desserts helped to end the meal on a sweeter note, ranging from the very mild saffron-infused panna cotta, a light, silky eggless custard served cold, to a decadent semifreddo, several balls of ice cream served with a slightly lumpy chocolate sauce. Coffee was accompanied by a tiny glass boot filled with cream.
I wanted to fall head over heels with the Boot, but I’m old school when it comes to love. I want something I can count on.