People who stopped in to check out Alex & Teresa’s in the first few months after its opening were greeted by Sinatra tunes and floor-to-ceiling murals of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. If they took these cues to mean that they had just entered a New York Italian pizza-pasta joint, they were in for a surprise when they opened the menu.
Instead of a catalog of Italian-American favorites, they found offerings like cuoppo di Gennarino, polpettine alla diavola and trofie salsiccia e friarelli. Instead of another strip mall Italian-American eatery, these lucky gastronomic explorers had stumbled across a restaurant specializing in authentic Italian cuisine.
Neapolitan, to be precise, is the native cuisine of the restaurant’s owners, Teresa Russo (whose family owned a restaurant in Naples) and her husband, Alex Greco, an experienced pizzaiolo who also helps out in the dining room. The couple, who come to Cary by way of New York, opened Alex & Teresa’s in January. Their enthusiasm for the food of their childhood is obvious as they answer your questions and describe dishes, some of which you may never have heard of.
They explain that cuoppo di Gennarino is an appetizer sampler inspired by snacks that are served in a paper cone (“cuoppo”) on the streets of Naples. I’ll add that it’s a first-rate way to begin your exploration. A recent sampler included creamy-centered potato croquettes, triangles of fried pizza dough, and a saffron-tinged rice ball as big as a baseball, filled with molten mozzarella, bolognese sauce and green peas — all arranged around a small dish of San Marzano tomato dipping sauce.
Polpettini alla diavola, miniature beef meatballs simmered in a spicy tomato sauce, is another winning starter. So is homemade burrata with speck— a natural companion for the crusty house-baked bread you’ll be served hot out of the oven. Fried calamari (Alex proudly informs you that the squid is fresh, not frozen) needed a little salt when I ordered it, but were otherwise exemplary.
Fresh pasta is a house specialty, with options ranging from classically simple spaghetti cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) to trofie salsiccia e friarelli (a short, twisted pasta with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe). Ravioli, whose ricotta filling may be tinged with orange or lemon (chef’s choice), is a delightful change of pace, regardless which citrus is featured.
The ravioli is one of a handful of vegetarian options, along with gnocchi alla Sorrentina (fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil), trofie al pesto, and tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms (which also happens to be gluten-free).
If you absolutely must get your Italian-American fix, you’ll find a very saucy spaghetti with meatballs among the half-dozen or so listings under the Dry Pasta heading. Other options cover a wide spectrum from penne alla Siciliana (another departure from Neapolitan home turf, featuring eggplant, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil) to linguine al scolio (seafood and cherry tomatoes in white wine, olive oil and garlic).
The main course offering meanders all over Italy, from pollo alla romana (Roman-style chicken with mixed bell peppers) to cioppino Siciliano. And if you thought cioppino originated in the San Francisco Italian fisherman community (I did), Teresa Russo is happy to dispute that origin story. It’s safe to say that no one in San Francisco would recognize the version served at Alex & Teresa’s as cioppino (it comes off more like zuppa di pesce), but there’s no denying that it’s a tasty, tomatoey seafood stew.
Chef Alberto Di Somma, who has cooked all over the world from Naples to Brazil, does his hometown of Milan proud with two worthy dishes: ossobucco alla Milanese (with risotto), and cotoletta alla Milanese con melanzane a funghetto: lightly breaded veal cutlets served with a medley of eggplant and tomatoes cooked “mushroom style.”
New York-style pizzas are another winning option. The emphasis on authentic Neapolitan fare notwithstanding, Alex & Teresa’s doesn’t bill their pies as “la vera Napoletana.” More than two dozen toppings are available, as well as house specialty pies such as eggplant parmesan and prosciutto San Daniele — on a thin, well-browned crust.
Alex & Teresa’s is still a work in progress, though the progress in the kitchen has been especially impressive since my first visit in February, when under-salting was a recurring issue. Other than a Caesar salad marred by hard, dense croutons, everything I’ve had on subsequent visits has been good to very good.
The dining room decor has been coming along more slowly. In late May, the owners installed a tiled bar with a featured selection of Italian cocktails (try the Rossini or the Campari spritz). And just last week, Greco began painting over those stark black and white murals of New York city landmarks (which Alex & Teresa’s inherited from the pizzeria that was the previous tenant) with a warm, inviting shade of peach. Teresa Russo plans to bring home some artwork to decorate those walls when she returns from a visit to Naples in August.
In the meantime, the restaurant’s affable owners’ enthusiasm — and their frequent switching from English to Italian when they banter with one another and with chef Alberto (who happens to be a family friend) should be more than sufficient to set the mood.
Alex & Teresa’s Pizzeria & Trattoria
941 N. Harrison St., Cary
Rating: three stars
Atmosphere: casual, with open kitchen
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: cuoppo di Gennarino, polpettini, fresh pastas, cotoletta alla Milanese, pizza
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good 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: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.