A native of Florence, Italy, Sbandati (pronounced spa-n-dah-tee) waves his hands and directs the action at Trattoria Sbandati, his intimate restaurant on Bend's west side. His wife, Kinley Fitzkee Sbandati, eight months pregnant with their first child, greets visitors as they enter.
‘There is an Italian saying: ‘The fewer the tables, the fuller your restaurant,'” chef Juri Sbandati said. “I am tired of restaurants that seat 150 to 200 people. I decided to go the opposite direction, to make everyone feel special.”
Her cousin, Nathan Hickmond, and Hickmond's fiancee, Emily Berry, head the service staff.
“A trattoria in Italy is a family-run business,” said Juri (pronounced yoo-ree) in his thickly accented English. “And it is a place where you develop strong connections with your customers.”
Trattoria Sbandati threw open its doors Oct. 2 in a space that once housed La Rosa Mexican Restaurant.
The 36-seat cafe, its Florentine art and draperies giving it a sense of European style, already is regarded as one of the premier places to dine in Central Oregon.
Deservedly so. From its weekday lunches — featuring Sbandati's hand-made pastas, sauces, breads and soups — to reservation-only prix-fixe (fixed-price) dinners three nights a week, the trattoria has no culinary peer on the east side of Oregon's Cascade Mountains.
This is authentic Tuscan cuisine. It is not Americanized. You may find spaghetti, you'll definitely get meatballs, but spaghetti and meatballs? Not a chance. “That is not Italian food,” Sbandati said. “You also won't find fettuccine Alfredo or chicken Parmigiana here.”
The “polpette” (Italian for meatballs) are a mainstay of the daily lunch menu. Made with freshly ground beef, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, they are served with spinach sauteed with garlic cloves, and they are simply delicious.
There's nothing that would stop a diner from ordering a plate of the paste del giorno (“pastas of the day”) and mixing in the polpette. But why do that, when Sbandati's preparations are so good? Tagliatelle with a tomato-rich Chiantigiana sauce of sausage and fennel seed, for example. Or penne with a gorgonzola, walnut and arugula sauce.
On a midday visit, I had a sandwich, but it wasn't just any sandwich. It was made with schiacciatta, a traditional Tuscan bread of flour, water and yeast, brushed with olive oil, salted and baked. Straight from the oven, it was stuffed with prosciutto (cured ham), arugula and mozzarella cheese and served warm.
My companion was served an ample plate of ravioli stuffed with kale and ricotta cheese, drizzled with a white truffle oil butter and sage sauce. She said it may have been the best pasta she had ever eaten.
The restaurant also has a deli counter where bread, meats and cheeses are sold from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
Dinner at Trattoria Sbandati is a production worthy of a special occasion.
I've twice had Sbandati's prix-fixe dinners with matching short pours of selected Italian wines. There are no menu options.
“I want people to eat what I like to eat,” the chef said. He e-mails his menu to diners several days before they arrive so that there are no surprises on the menu. “I want to create an experience,” he said. “I want to make you anticipate for days.”
Each meal consists of an antipasti or starter; a “primi,” or first course; a “secondi,” or second course; and a “dolci,” or dessert. Each course is served in deliberate fashion. Servers are highly professional and well-schooled in Italian foods and wines, but diners must expect to wait for the careful food preparation: A 7 p.m. dinner won't be concluded until at least 9:30.
Of the two antipasti that my dining companion and I tried, our favorite was a duck breast salad. In this “Insalata al Petto d'Anatra,” sliced duck, smoked with cherry wood and orange peel, was served over mild-flavored mache greens (also known as rapunzel) and drizzled with aged Italian balsamic vinegar.
We preferred this to “Carciofi Fritti con La Polenta Fritta,” or fried artichoke hearts with polenta. Although it may have made an excellent afternoon snack, we found it a little heavy for a first course. The polenta was deep-fried in olive oil and topped with crispy battered 'chokes on Taleggio cheese.
Both primi were wonderful. At the first dinner, two light Florentine crepes were folded around spinach and ricotta and topped with tomato and bechamel sauces. At the second meal, hand-made potato gnocchi with Taleggio and artichoke hearts was similarly outstanding.
Pancetta and panna cotta
The secondi was twice an event. At the first, “Pancetta Brasata,” or braised pork belly, was served with pureed cannellini beans and roasted potatoes, seasoned with rosemary and garlic. Mildly fatty, the meat was so tender that it almost fell apart at the touch of a fork.
The second dinner featured two quail, roasted with porcini mushrooms and served on a bed of fried polenta. Quail are small birds and their meat is bony, but the flavor was marvelous.
I loved the silky panna cotta presented for dessert at the first meal, topped with a fresh berry sauce. The second dinner offered several sweets: lemon mousse, chocolate-filled bigné and tiramisu from a recipe that Sbandati said he learned from his grandmother.
Italian food is simple, accessible and versatile, Sbandati said. “But simple does not mean easy,” he said. “I try to be an artisan. I don't cook much with butter or heavy cream. I want to cook for people but not feed the masses. I am cooking with a personal touch.”
The Sbandatis met in Florence, where Kinley Fitzkee was a graduate art student. They moved to Oregon in 2005. For the first four years of their residence here, they operated Sbandati Personal Chef Services, and Juri cooked in the homes of clients from San Francisco to Seattle. “But a chef without a kitchen is like a country without a government,” he said. “Now, with my own restaurant, we can provide much more.”
The 10 Barrel Brewing Co. opened its long-awaited brewpub Wednesday on Bend's west side. Operations manager Garrett Wales said the restaurant serves a full menu of appetizers, salads, hot sandwiches and entrees, from veggie burgers to gluten-free pizzas. Most dishes are priced $6 to $10. The pub has a full bar but specializes in hand-crafted beers from the company's brewery in northeast Bend. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. 1135 N.W. Galveston Ave., Bend; 541-678-5228, www.10barrel.com.
Central Oregon wineries fared well at the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition in early February. Nearly 5,000 American wineries entered the event. Maragas Winery won silver medals for its 2008 chardonnay and 2008 muscat, and bronze for its 2005 signature reserve zinfandel. The winery is located two miles north of Terrebonne (15523 S.W. U.S. Highway 97, Culver; 541-546-5464, www.maragaswinery.com) and has a tasting room in Bend (643 N.W. Colorado Ave., Bend; 541-330-0919). Volcano Vineyards won silver for its 2006 merlot and bronze for its 2006 syrah. Volcano also has a tasting room in downtown Bend (126 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend; 541-617-1102; www.volcanovineyards.com).
Brother Jon's Public House (B+): One of Bend's better budget dining options, this family-friendly pub offers outstanding salads and sandwiches, though some other dishes are less exciting. There's a good selection of Northwest beers on tap. Service is friendly but inconsistent. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. 1227 N.W. Galveston Ave., Bend; 541-306-3321.
Hola! (A): At its new location in the Shops at the Old Mill District, and its original spot at the Forum Shopping Center, Hola! offers a creative Peruvian and Mexican menu unique in Central Oregon. Outstanding food, generous portions, moderate prices, good drinks, a festive atmosphere and well-trained staff make this one of Bend's best bets. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day (dinner from 4 p.m.). 680 S.W. Powerhouse Drive, Suite 1002, Bend (541-647-2711); 2670 N.E. Highway 20, Suite 710, Bend (541-389-4652); www.holabend.com.
The Gallery (C): A three-decade institution on Sisters' main street, this bastion of Old West flavor has mediocre cuisine and less-than-attentive service. The best food choice may be the halibut in the fish-and-chips. Open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 171 W. Cascade St. (U.S. Highway 20), Sisters; 541-549-2631, www.galleryrestaurantandbar.com.
Old Mill Bistro (B): Despite a difficult location in an off-the-beaten-track office building, this little restaurant offers good Northwest-inspired food and professional service at moderate prices. Lunch business bustles: Try the house-made seafood chowder. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. 384 S.W. Upper Terrace Drive, Bend; 541-389-3060, www.oldmillbistro.com.