Centro, if you look it up or ask somebody in the know, translates from Italian as “center,” right in the middle of things. An etymologist with a gastronomic streak who knows of a certain gem in Hampton Bays might tell you that it actually means “ask your server to please put everything in the center of the table, because not sharing would be to deny your fellow diners of something special by keeping it all for yourself.” Here endeth the language lesson, and here begineth a meal you’ll be talking about until…well, until the next time you come back to Centro Trattoria & Bar.
To walk through the doors on any given night is to instantly be part of a celebratory glass-clinking cacophony at the bar or the adjacent dining room filled with an array of tables, cozy pairings for two and festive larger parties raising glasses and filling the room with laughter and the well wishes of toasts. The entire space hums with a certain energy, like you’ve been invited to some sort of fabulous party. Without question, since its doors opened in 2016, Centro remains the rare restaurant that is special-occasion worthy while also emitting an inviting neighborhood-friendly feel that envelops you in the warmth of being a regular—whether you are one or you have just walked in for the first time.
First, a cocktail. The Centro Old Fashioned, crafted with Woodford Reserve bourbon, is a perfect iteration of the classic, especially now that fall is upon us. Any of the Negroni choices—you know you are in good hands when a cocktail menu has a special section dedicated to the Negroni—will conjure images of sitting at an Italian sidewalk café, idling away the hours. For those who have a bit of a sweet tooth, one recent diner was overhead noting with a smile that the amaretto sour was “like drinking marzipan.” Nothing wrong with a little dessert before dinner.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As noted, the convivial atmosphere here at Centro lends itself to sharing around the table, and the best place to enjoy the rustic Italian fair, often accented with a creative flair, is of course with the starters.
Burrata has become everyone’s favorite first-course cheese, but the presentation can run the risk of getting monotonous. Crispy burrata, well, that’s another thing entirely. Panko crusted and served with watermelon, arugula, lavender honey, sliced almonds and a balsamic reduction, the namesake crisp gives way to a creamy cheesiness that will have your table wondering aloud how to nominate its creator for some kind of award in the world of reimagined fromage.
Staying in crispy lane, a flavorful, light Fritto Misto of calamari, shrimp, zucchini, lemon and spicy pomodoro proves the adage that we should not live on fried calamari alone (yes, there is such an adage, although solo fried calamari is a thing of beauty unto itself when done right). Moving toward the meaty, savoring the plate of Nonna’s Meatballs is like going back to your grandmother’s kitchen, regardless of her ancestry, for something homemade and comforting and worthy of a family recipe book.
And then there is the Grilled Octopus, one of the East End’s true must-order dishes. Put it on your short list, because this is a revelation. Not a modicum of flavor is lost from grill to plate—the combination of smoky char and sea salinity in the tender tentacle set off perfectly by the perky, acidic accompaniment of peppers, red onions and capers in a red wine vinaigrette. When a dish inspires the utterance of single-word rave, “Wow,” you know you have something special.
Centro’s menu shines in the new-fangled and the traditional alike. To call the Chicken Parmigiana portion generous would be to undersell that term, a perfectly tender cutlet beneath a bright tomato sauce and luxurious layer of cheese making you remember why this dish became a classic in the first place. For seafood lovers, the Shrimp Saltimbocca shines, a trio of colossal shrimp with sautéed spinach, prosciutto di Parma and fontina nestled atop crostini.
Now, a trattoria is only as good as its homemade pasta—every size and shape here from the cavatelli to orecchiette to tagliatelle is exemplary—as well as what goes on top of it. Bolognese sauce has many incarnations, and there has been endless discussion in culinary circles as to whether “authentic” Bolognese should attain that name only by adhering to certain strictures of ingredients and preparation. There is ongoing conversation as to the type of meat to be used, for example—pork, veal and beef each have their champions. What type of pasta should it be served with: a thin spaghetti or a broad pappardelle?
Such debate is how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin futile. Instead, embrace the notion that a bolognese made with a care for the complexity of its ingredients can become the stuff of legend. And then, forks in hand—yes, plural, because here comes a bowl meant to be partaken of by every diner at the table—dive into the Pappardelle Bolognese. A hearty mixture of veal, beef and pork—ending that single-meat notion for all time, perhaps—San Marzano tomatoes, cream and Grana Padano, this is the kind of dish that, eaten with eyes closed, will transport you.
On the side, intriguing accompaniments include the Broccoli Rabe & Cannelloni Beans, and the Roasted Heirloom Baby Carrots with gorgonzola crema. Crispy Polenta, in a Jenga-like plating and served with a roasted red pepper aioli, is an irresistible finger food you will no doubt alternate dipping into the pomodoro sauce on your plate and the accompanying roasted red pepper aioli. And with your other free hand, if you are of the school of thought that says Truffle Fries go with any dish, make sure to indulge in an order of the earthy treat.
Here’s a bit of advice. When your server asks if you are interested in dessert, do not bother trying to resist. Resistance is futile. And foolish. To do so would be to miss the Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake with strawberry glaze or the Mini Cannoli filled with homemade cream. You cannot pass up the chance to up your traditional post-meal coffee with the Affogato—a shot of espresso to pour over vanilla gelato, accented with pistachio dust, chocolate ganache and biscotti. The most delightful dolci surprise just might be the Italian Float. A soda-fountain glass stuffed with hazelnut gelato and a bottle of Frizz Coffee on the side, which once poured over takes the concept of ice cream soda to new heights.
As you head for your car, laughter and an erupting cheer beckon from the far end of the parking lot. There, under the lights, the bocce court is in full swing, filled with good-natured gamesmanship and competitors holding either a bocce ball or a glass in hand. You go for a closer view, and somebody you’ve never met waves you over. The party is about to continue, and there you are, in the center of it all.
Centro Trattoria & Bar, 336 W. Montauk Highway, Hampton Bays. Visit centrohamptons.com or call 631-594-5744.