When it opened 14 years ago in a former furniture store, Aunt Bea's was a pioneer, the first restaurant on the three-block stretch of East Montague Avenue that now serves as Park Circle's thriving restaurant row. Earlier this year, the homey meat-n-three lunch spot closed its doors. In what was a sort of symbolic transition for the Park Circle neighborhood, Bea's was replaced by Fratello's Italian Tavern
Fratello's offers more upscale dining, including dinner service, a wine list, and a little international flair. At first glance, this combination seems an ocean away from the country fried steak and sweet tea of the old Aunt Bea's, but dig in and you'll find some similarly comforting fare.
The Italian tavern's salads include a basic caesar ($8) and house salad with mixed greens, cuke, and tomato ($6) as well as the impressive Insalata al Fratello ($9), which starts with a blend of romaine, radicchio, and arugula and layers on the sweet and savory with golden figs, candied pecans, and crumbles of goat cheese. For appetizers, there's fried calamari ($10) tossed with sliced cherry peppers, and shrimp ($9) or mussels ($11) sautéed in white wine, garlic, and butter sauce.
Fratello's pulls its own fresh mozzarella, and four oblong strips of it anchor the pomodoro e mozzarella appetizer ($9). They're arranged on the plate with slices of roma tomatoes, thinly-sliced red onions, and strips of basil leaf, finished with dramatic brown stripes of reduced balsamic vinegar. The cheese is creamy and slightly grainy, and the punctuation of basil and balsamic make for a cool, pleasant opener.
The menu's description of salsicce pane ($7) — "sautéed sausage and peppers spun with mozzarella, wrapped and baked in fresh bread crust" — sounds much more sophisticated than the dish actually is. It's basically a tasty little calzone with a soft, chewy crust filled with minced sausage and peppers, complete with a bowl of marinara for dipping.
The nine pasta dishes include all the greatest hits from the Italian-American catalog, including penne alla vodka ($13), linguine alle vongole ($16), and fettuccini alfredo ($13). On the carnivorous end, there's the full complement of chicken and veal preparations — parm, Marsala, picatta, and saltimbocca — plus old favorites like braciole di maiale ($15), a braised pork loin rolled with prosciutto, garlic, and herbs, and bistecca pizzaiola ($19), a New York strip layered with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
The pasta in the ravioli caprese ($16) has a good firm texture, and it's filled with a blend of basil, ricotta, and finely diced tomatoes that's very tasty. The ravioli swim, however, in a thick cream sauce that seems too heavy, both in its richness and in the sharp punch of garlic, for what might otherwise be a delicate dish.
The manicotti al forno ($14) is a fine representative of the big-cheesy mode of Italian-American restaurant cooking. Three tubes of pasta are stuffed with mozzarella and other cheeses, placed in a wide au gratin dish, and covered in red sauce and more cheese. It's baked until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese inside is melted and chewy — a basic but pleasing plate.
Ultimately, while there may be a couple of tri-colored Italian flags hanging out front, Fratello's isn't really all that far away from the homey comfort food served by Aunt Bea's. The big plate glass windows in front and the yellow beadboard walls remain, as does one of the big framed posters that once graced Aunt Bea's walls. Chef Kevin Bruntz has said that the menu is meant to have a "home cooking" feel, and it does, just from an Italian-American kitchen rather than a country one.
But Fratello's does step out a little with its nightly specials. Recent ones have focused on fresh seafood, like golden tilefish atop a vegetable risotto and seared scallops served over disks of polenta and dressed with pancetta and grilled asparagus.
West Ashley and Mt. Pleasant have long had their cozy Italian gems, and for them the arrival of Fratello's might not be big news. For folks in Park Circle, though, it's a noteworthy turn of events, adding a promising option for an elegant but casual evening meal.