Hanging on one wall at Ricci’s Trattoria, just to the right of a large chalkboard menu, is a collection of framed black and white photos. The pictures, mementos of owner/chef Richard “Ricci” Moore’s trips to Rome and Siena, Italy, previously decorated the walls of Ricci’s Pizzeria, a popular Holly Springs restaurant that Moore owned for three years before selling it last year.
He opened Ricci’s Trattoria in May in roomier digs in Cary, changing the name to reflect an expanded offering.
For fans of the pizzeria who follow Moore to his new location – and judging by online reviews, there will be more than a few – the photos offer the comfort of continuity. For newcomers, they add a personal touch to an otherwise minimally decorated generic strip mall space.
And it doesn’t take long to discover that the personal touch is what Ricci’s is all about, from Moore’s frequent excursions into the dining room to chat with customers (and give the occasional complimentary garlic knot to a toddler) to the family heirloom recipes that are the backbone of his menu.
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“I’m Italian on my mother’s side,” he says, and he’ll proudly tell anyone who asks that he makes pretty much everything from scratch. That includes the arancini on the starter list (deep-fried rice balls punctuated with a savory hash of beef, veal, pork, ricotta and fresh mozzarella) as well as the marinara – vibrant with ripe tomato flavor, neither too garlicky nor too sweet – that he ladles over them.
If you like the arancini, chances are you’ll love polpette alla Nonna (aka Grandma’s meatballs), which double down on on the meatiness factor and cap it off with homemade “gravy” and shaved pecorino romano.
Clams oreganata — Littlenecks baked in garlic, white wine, lemon and butter beneath a tweed of toasted Italian bread crumbs and fresh herbs — are also on the money. So are fried calamari, though your money ($10.15) doesn’t always get you as many of the crispy little critters as you’d like.
The arancini are just a foretaste of ambitiously expanded pasta and entree offerings that earn the new Ricci’s its promotion to trattoria status. Among the newcomers to the menu are rigatoni bolognese, spaghetti carbonara, five classic variations on the veal theme (and their chicken counterparts), and an entire section devoted to seafood.
Lasagna della Nonna – three layers of pasta baked with a hearty beef ragu, seasoned ricotta, mozzarella and Parmigiano – is soul-satisfying fuel for the cool fall nights to come. At the opposite, delicate end of the spectrum, capellini al gamberetti serves up a tangle of sautéed shrimp, fresh spinach, tomatoes and angel hair pasta, filmed in a translucent garlic white wine sauce. The same sauce helps rigatoni con salsiccia strike a happy medium between those two extremes, where it lightly glazes sweet, fennel-spiked Italian sausage, bright broccoli florets and al dente pasta.
An overly energetic squeeze of lemon mars an otherwise fine rendition of veal francese. But herb-spangled grilled salmon, served with sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes, is a keeper.
Ricci’s “everything homemade” mantra applies to the dessert offerings, too, where you’ll find temptations ranging from powdered sugar-dusted zeppole to flourless chocolate torte with a berry coulis. Creamy, vanilla bean-flecked mascarpone cheesecake is good enough that you’ll want to make sure you get that “choice of flavored dessert topping” on the side. Tiramisu delivers the sweet tooth goods, too, with a textbook assembly of coffee- and rum-soaked ladyfingers layered with whipped mascarpone and dusted with cocoa.
“Wait!” I can hear longtime Ricci’s fans shouting, all the way from Holly Springs. “What about the pizza? Don’t they serve it any more?”
Indeed they do, and you’ll be delighted to know that the New York-style pies that were the foundation of the original Ricci’s reputation are as good as ever, with an exemplary thin, blistery, well-browned crust. About the only change you’ll notice is the addition of a few “gourmet” topping options such as prosciutto, grilled chicken and roasted red peppers.
For his new restaurant, Moore installed larger versions of the same stone-lined ovens he mastered in Holly Springs. They still turn out a classic rectangular extra-thin Grandma pizza, too, as well as thick, bready Sicilian squares and an assortment of well-filled variations on the calzone theme.
Turns out you can take the pizzeria out of the restaurant’s name, but you can’t take the pizza out of Ricci’s.
10110 Green Level Church Road, Cary
Atmosphere: casual, simply furnished, family-friendly
Noise level: moderate
Service: welcoming and attentive
Recommended: arancini, clams oreganata, rigatoni con salsiccia, pizza, desserts
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday
Reservations: not accepted
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.