First among equals in a UN of Stamford restaurants

There is no shortage of new restaurants or international cuisines to choose from on downtown Stamford’s “Restaurant Row,” but a well-established Italian restaurant is still one of the best.

Bordering the fleck of green known as Columbus Park in downtown Stamford, a number of new restaurants have sprung up since the start of the pandemic, turning the area into a melting pot of international cuisines. There is Riviera Maya, for authentic moles and chimichangas; Fiesta, should you fancy chaufas, Peruvian pepper steak and sublime Pisco sours; and chorizo and egg sandwiches for breakfast at Noches de Columbia, a small bar, grill and bakery group. For Japanese food, there is excellent sushi and more besides at Fin II. And pastitsio at the Kouzina Taverna has you right there — on the harbor, in Mykonos, — while the curries and rice dishes at Chutni Byriani will conjure up old Hyderabad, and the poké bowls at Poké Moto will transport you, or at least try to, to Honolulu. 

I could go on:  At Shells Boil and Grill, for instance, the only domestic option on the strip, you can enjoy some Low Country lobster or crab. And there’s even food for the brain at Tiernan’s, the Irish pub, whose popular Wednesday quiz night is said to attract competitors from all over the county.

So much choice can be overwhelming. Which is why, forsaking all others, it’s to the much-loved and venerated Italian restaurant, Columbus Park Trattoria, named for its locale and indeed the oldest kid on the block, that I’m choosing to return. In business since 1987, with only a much-needed, light renovation during the pandemic, has it stood the test of time? New shows and opening nights are all well and good, but where golden ‘oldie’ Columbus Park is concerned, and as Ethel Merman famously sang, “do the customers still come?’”

First signs are good. On a brutally cold night, when the streets of Stamford are deserted and downtown is silent as the grave, Columbus Park (the restaurant) is all a-buzz. In its new clothes, a partition with opaque glass now separates the bar from the restaurant proper. The restaurant itself is a fairly intimate space — just 48 covers in all, with a banquette along one wall and a semi-open kitchen. Ceiling-light fixtures (“like scuttling crabs,” one of my companions suggests) add a contemporary touch.

Another modern touch is the menu. While it contains some favorite old classics, I like that it is — literally — clean in its plastic cover (nothing worse than a greasy, splattered menu) and printed in an up-to-date, copperplate font. Classic negronis — after grubby menus, there’s nothing more dispiriting than classic cocktails given a “modern twist” — arrive in a minute flat, correctly served in heavy, Old Fashioned glasses, perfectly mixed around giant ice cubes, prinked with generous slices of glistening orange. 

But enough dissection of the decoration, menu covers and newfangled cocktails. Mangiamo.

The dinner menu itself is Goldilocks right — long enough to tempt and tantalize, short enough not to overwhelm or make you lose interest. Four of us kick off with some shared plates “for the table,” in the menus turn of phrase, among them superb crostini of tapenade, pesto and tomato, along with golden trinkets of lightly fried calamari. We follow this with burrata, not the creamiest ever but no disgrace to the buffaloes or cheesemakers who produced it, arranged with nicely dressed arugula and surrounded with generous, paper-thin folds of nicely salty prosciutto. A tangy tuna tartare, with avocado, sesame oil and wasabi, also finds favor.

Offering half-portions of pasta means even the lighter appetites among us can enjoy a pasta course as well as an entrée or secondo, as the Italians are wont to do. Matagliata (wide-cut pasta) with fresh fava beans, peas and sausage and paccheri (large rigatoni) with veal ragù are two dishes that sing.

Carefully made main courses — dishes characterized by confident, punchy sauces and the jewels of the Italian south, tomatoes, olives, peppers and caperberries — reflect the Pugliese roots  of the owning family, the Marchettis, and keep the party smiling. We enjoy sea bream with fennel, a gorgeous veal cutlet with baby tomatoes and superb lamb chops with rosemary. But it is a dish of the north, a classic osso buco, that probably steals the show. 

(Note: a separate lunch menu sensibly does away with the more substantial entrées, while increasing the number of salads and pastas.)

Service is spot-on — friendly and focused without being overfamiliar. Servers look sharp in their crisp blue shirts, runners in their white ones and long aprons all-round. Full marks too for the melodic renditions of “Happy Birthday” (twice), sung with genuine enthusiasm. (Well, Italians are noted for their way with music.)

Is there a downside to all this loveliness? There is, but it’s minimal. Like so many Italian restaurants, the acoustics at Columbus Park can be challenging, with the restaurant becoming extremely noisy on weekends. (I wouldn’t recommend it for an intimate dinner for two on a Friday or Saturday night.) I also found the wines at the lower end of the list, at least those we sampled, to be a little squeaky. For something more developed and expressive, prices rise quickly and steeply. 

Otherwise, this golden, comparative oldie is a treasure and certainly — dear old Ethel again —“somewhere to lift you when you’re down.”

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