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Jewel by the Water:

HOMEY ITALIAN: Swansboro’s Trattoria serves pasta made from owner Sal Fontana’s Sicilian family recipes. Photo by Tiffanie Gabrielse

Trattoria Gourmet Pizza and Breads
108 W. Corbett Ave. • Swansboro, NC
Pricing: $$$$$

HOMEY ITALIAN: Swansboro’s Trattoria serves pasta made from owner Sal Fontana’s Sicilian family recipes. Photo by Tiffanie Gabrielse

Not long before the summer began, I was in Boston’s famous North Italian end enjoying great food with great company. Then, within a blink of an eye, I was packing and greatly looking forward to coming back to North Carolina after enduring a heart-breaking yearlong deployment away from my husband. Since my departure from Boston, I’ve had one major issue with being back: There are no great, home-style, authentic Italian restaurants around Jacksonville (and, no, certain big chains don’t constitute for real Italian food). However, in the same blink, my husband and I stumbled upon a little jewel by the water, Trattoria, located off West Corbett Avenue in Swansboro—only a hop, skip and a jump outside of Jacksonville.

I have yet to find one dish (and I’ve dined here quite frequently since my discovery) that doesn’t offer pure, unadulterated flavor. Believe me, there’s a lot to choose from. In fact, one may find the menu a bit too overwhelming: a cold antipasto appetizer, amazing bruschetta, with generously chopped fresh red onions, basil, oregano and thyme, piled high on warm bread and blanketed in olive oil; behemoth-sized calzones fit for a platoon; hearty and satisfying entrées like carbonara, sautéed with bacon and tomato in a pink, creamy to-die-for sauce; and fresh, perfectly breaded calamari marinara served al dente. Their gourmet Rustica pizza comes piled with roasted peppers, dribbles of olive oil, fresh tomatoes, spinach, garlic and mozzarella all atop in-house-made dough. That’s the point Sicilian owners Kathy Forcella and Salvatore Fontana (Sal for short) want customers to remember, as it is from their homeland that the restaurant succeeds.

“When the agriculture went down in Italy, I sold my land in Sicily, came to America, bought a house and my first pizza shop in a mall in New Jersey,” Fontana shared during my last visit. His thick Sicilian accent flowed over the chatter of happy customers who were squeezed into the tiny riverside cafe. No stranger to family-style cooking, Fontana was only 27 years old when he immigrated to the United States, ready to share his mother’s homemade bread and sauce recipes. For 10 years he stayed in New Jersey until the big chains took over the area.

“Soon after, I came down to North Carolina,” he said. “I love the people here. You can talk to them and have a conversation. I met more people from New Jersey here than when I lived in New Jersey. My mother taught me these recipes ever since I was a little one. She was tough. It was her way or no way.”
The literal translation for, “Trattoria” (prononced tratto’ria) means “small cuisine,” encompassing casual service and low prices. A father of three and grandfather of two, Fontana distinguishes his restaurant most from others by the amount of food that comes with each order. There’s nothing more upsetting than craving a hearty Italian family-style meal and being served miniscule portions, much less ones drowning in watery, translucent sauce.
Homemade, century-old family sauces make up the menu here, and they’re cooked-to-order. Never will customers find a bucket of sauce on a shelf, with a thick, gelatin skin coating it. In its place one will taste smooth and milky parmesan cheeses, fire-roasted nutty garlic sauces with hints of butter and honeyed tomato gravy that’s neither tart nor brackish on the palate.

Authentic and passionate about flavor, Trattoria marries crucial staple spices with an unbeatable freshness. Literally, they grow a cute garden located just beyond the back door. There, the owers nourish and coddle tomatoes, basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme. Its Italian food as it’s meant to be: hearty, with juicy vegetables, creamy sauces and overwhelming palate-pumping portions. It’s accomplished without the pedestrian, overused distractions like stereotypical Mediterranean decor or Dean Martin serenades.

Walking into Trattoria, the homey atmosphere is very down to earth—nothing fancy about it. Pottery sits comfortably on overhead shelving, as wine bottles are stacked nearly everywhere. Best of all, photos of family adorn the walls. If there is music overhead, well, I didn’t notice (word to the wise: Just because Frank Sinatra plays does not make an eatery truly Italian). Fontana and Forcella were busy engaging everyone around them, including new diners like us.

Even the wait that often branches out to the covered porch isn’t a bother. In fact, it is well worth it. Forcella and Fontana make it so, just as they prioritize a 10 percent discount to those who serve our country proudly.

“These men and women go overseas and they put their [lives] in trouble for us,” Fontana says. “My father went to WWII and came back blind. I respect our service members. I’ll always respect them. I know what it feels like to be away from family. It’s no good.”
The homey touch of Trattoria is in the food, the ambience and, yes, even in the small details. The convergence of conversation between restaurateur and diner. The caring notion that, hopefully, they’ll all be back again.

“I may not know all their names,” Fontana says, “but I know their faces. And when I don’t see [military personnel] come in to sit at the tables, but I see the buses drive by filled with men, I wonder about them. I don’t stop thinking about them until I see them back at a table. There will always be a table here for them.”

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