You've probably driven past Fratello Ristorante without noticing it. On busy Meridian Avenue but tucked in the back of a nondescript mall, Fratello (which means "brother") has been quietly serving the neighborhood for ten years. The restaurant invited me to sample Fratello and interview the owner, Carmine Camporaso.
Shall we begin with the food? Yes, of course, it's Italy — we begin and end with the food.
My first tasting dish was Ravioli Mare, a house-made seafood ravioli with crab and lobster. Ravioli often disappoint me because the flavor of the filling is lost in pasta and giant tomato sauce flavors. Not this time. The seafood dominates this dish. The pasta, perfectly al dente, and the light tomato sauce played a supporting role.
Next up was a Fettucini Al Funghi Porcini — fettucini pasta with a light cream sauce infused with porcini. The standout in this dish was the porcini. Carmine described how they cook the porcini flavor into the sauce. There is a little lemon in there, barely discernible, which balances out the cream. A housemade sausage, rounds out this hearty pasta entree.
The third dish was quite different from the first two. In the first two dishes, one ingredient sang the main flavor note and other flavors balanced out the chorus. In this dish, Tonno Alla Griglia, there were two stars and neither of them dominated. Grilled ahi tuna with sundried tomato, capers, and kalamata olives, was served atop a bed of spinach sauteed in olive oil and garlic and generously dressed with olive oil. The ahi was fully cooked. Carmine said they will cook it to order (which for me, would be rare.)
Light, with really well developed flavors, this dish seemed like two. On top was the ahi played against the sharp, briny flavors of capers and olives, and the roundness from the olive oil and sundried tomatoes. Then, underneath, a counterpoint from bright spinach and olive oil and garlic, all perfectly balanced.
Carmine grew up in a restaurant family in Italy. He has been in the US since 1996 and runs Fratello Ristorante with his sister and brother. He takes pride in ingredients — ask him about his gnocci and he will tell you he makes it there. Ask about the menu and he will point out favorites, seasonal and imported ingredients.
The tomato sauce is made in-house, and cooked just right. Too much cooking and it gets acidic and people try to compensate with sugar. The olive oil — he talks a lot about the extra virgin olive oil. He talked about the beet salad (beets are a favorite of mine), the perfect marriage of arugula and parmesan, the sausage he makes without casings.
This is not heavy Italian fare, dominated by pasta and tomato sauce with meatballs. He does some of that, to please those who are looking for that style, but Fratello's strong suit is the light and balanced touch of Southern Italy. There is pizza on the menu but that's not the style Carmine likes to prepare.
It may not be easy to see Fratello if you're not looking for it, but it is worth seeking.
Fratello is located at 1712 Meridian Avenue in San Jose, near Hamilton. First and second course entrees are in the $16-20 range.