Mothers & Sons Trattoria is Josh DeCarolis’ first restaurant, but the 33-year-old chef had more going for him on opening day than many veteran restaurateurs.
For starters, it doesn’t hurt that his partner is James Beard semifinalist Matt Kelly, owner/chef of two of Durham’s premier restaurants, Vin Rouge and Mateo. That Kelly chose to partner with DeCarolis speaks volumes about his respect for the young chef’s skills, most recently demonstrated as chef de cuisine at Mateo.
Even before teaming up with Kelly, DeCarolis was beginning to build a local fan base as chef at Jujube in Chapel Hill. Throw in a culinary degree from Connecticut Culinary Institute, work at the highly regarded La Morra Bacari in Brookline, Mass., and a family heritage steeped in Italian cuisine, and you’ve got some serious credentials for opening an Italian restaurant. To top it all off, the chef spent four months late last year in Italy, where he refined his skills in preparation for opening Mothers & Sons.
Much of that sojourn was devoted to mastering the technique for the handmade pastas that would become a signature feature of the Mothers & Sons menu. It’s a laborious process, mixing the dough by hand on a large wooden table at the back of the dining room and rolling it out with an oversize rolling pin. But DeCarolis believes the result – a rustic texture that’s ideal for holding sauces – is worth it.
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So do I. And so do a lot of other people, judging by the universal praise that has been lavished on DeCarolis’ pastas, from simple bucatini cacio e pepe (“cheese and pepper”) to sumptuous squid ink tonnarelli with uni, North Carolina shrimp, fennel and green onion. The tonnarelli has deservedly become the talk of the town, and if your experience with raw uni at sushi bars has left you unimpressed, you owe it to yourself to try it cooked in this dish.
Still not tempted? Cavatelli Pugliese with cime di rapa (aka rapini), fennel sausage and Calabrian chiles won’t let you down. Nor will any of the nine pasta variations, for that matter. Just be aware that, as the “Primi” heading suggests, these are traditional first course portions.
Which, happily, leaves room for exploring the rest of a menu loaded with so many tempting options that choosing is a challenge. For your antipasto course, do you go with bombette, little meatballs traditionally made with pork but here with lamb, stuffed with pecorino Toscano cheese and wrapped with prosciutto? Or bagna cauda, northern Italy’s answer to a fondue, pairing seasonal vegetables (roasted on the restaurant’s wood-burning hearth and, if you’re really lucky, including radishes with their crispy green tops still attached) with a dip of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovy that’s kept warm over a flame in a cheery red earthenware dish?
But then how do you say no to a fritto misto of shrimp, squid, smelts, anchovies, zucchini and translucent lemon slices, all flawless in a delicately crisp breading, served in true rustic trattoria style on a sheet of butcher paper? And surely you can make room for one of the tapas-size dishes called Spuntini – grilled olives, say, or supple house-cured coppa.
It doesn’t get any easier when it comes to choosing an entree – unless you checked the restaurant’s Facebook page beforehand, that is, and saw the video of herb-stuffed porchetta slowly turning on a rotisserie in front of open flames. In which case, you may have already made up your mind.
But you’ll have to resist the siren call of rabbit en agrodolce, the bone-in game flanked by creamy dollops of polenta melting into a stew riddled with raisins, capers, pine nuts and bright green Castelvetrano olives.
And you should know that porchetta is by no means the only enticement turned out by those mesmerizing hearth flames. There’s roast chicken, for one: two quarters of a juicy, copper-skinned bird blanketed with Italian salsa verde and nestled on a bed of charred broccoli and cauliflower. There’s an alluring wood-grilled red snapper, too, and often a fresh fish special such as whole branzino, irreproachably fresh and moist beneath a colorful confetti of chopped herbs, thinly sliced radishes and Jimmy Nardello peppers.
You’ve always wanted to try bistecca alla fiorentina, but the $75 price tag – three times the average entree price here – puts it on the back burner, saved for a special occasion. When you do celebrate, you’ll do it with 32 ounces of dry-aged beef (porterhouse or bone-in strip), easily enough for two to share.
The torture of choosing doesn’t ease up when it comes to dessert. Okay, you could pass on the lemon polenta cake, which can be a bit dry. But that still leaves you with a dilemma: textbook panna cotta, or warm chocolate cake with hazelnut mousse, or zeppole with Fernet-spiked caramel sauce? Close your eyes and point at the menu. Wherever your finger lands, you won’t be disappointed.
For that matter, kitchen execution is impressively consistent across the board. Apart from the polenta cake, my only disappointment was an artichoke salad with king trumpet mushrooms – whose earthy umami got lost in the acerbic dressing.
Service is generally solid, though sprinkled among the welcoming and well-trained staff are one or two you’ll have to flag down for bread or beverage.
Mothers & Sons’ dining room – a narrow space framed in weathered wood floors, molded tin ceilings, banquettes along one wall and a small, well-stocked bar on the other – sets a warmly welcoming Old World trattoria mood that’s well-suited to the menu. Hanging on the walls over the two booths in the front corners of the restaurant are framed vintage photos of three generations of Josh DeCarolis’ family. In one of those photos – the only one not in black and white – is his mother, who surely must be proud of her son.
107 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham; 919-294-8247
Atmosphere: warmly inviting Old World trattoria
Noise level: moderate to high
Recommended: pastas, anything hearth-roasted
Open: Dinner nightly
Reservations: recommended (walk-ins accepted)
Other: full bar (excellent selection of Italian wines and amari); accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; limited on-street parking, additional parking in deck and lot behind the restaurant on Ramseur Street.
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.