With a contemporary urban decor expressed in the rich colors of tomato red upholstery, matte black cocktail tables and walls of aubergine and olive, Gravy's snug dining room beckons enticingly to passers-by on downtown Raleigh's Wilmington Street. Whimsical paintings by Raleigh native Paul Friedrich (of Onion Head Monster fame) reinforce the trendy-casual vibe.
But it's the wall-spanning vintage photograph of Mulberry Street, circa 1900, that reveals the restaurant's culinary inspiration, promising an experience as rooted in Italian-American tradition as Gravy's namesake pasta sauce.
In the first few weeks after the restaurant's June opening, the kitchen struggled to live up to that promise. Gravy's owners, developer/restaurateur Greg Hatem (who owns Sitti next door and several other downtown restaurants) and Bella Monica owners Corbett Monica and Trevor Chambers, wasted no time in making changes. By September, they had replaced much of the staff, including the chef.
Tony Fusco, who began cooking in his grandmother's Bronx kitchen at age 9, is a keeper. His resume includes a Johnson & Wales degree and work in acclaimed restaurants all over the country. Fusco's versatility is evident in a menu that covers the spectrum from traditional meat lasagna with house-made ricotta to fettuccine nero, a stunning presentation of squid-ink pasta, poached mussels, fresh mint and scarlet ringlets of fiery Fresno chile.
Risotto cakes, the chef's take on arancini that ooze creamy rice and molten fontina when you break into their crunchy, golden-brown spheres of crust, are a fine way to begin a meal. So is a sublimely earthy porcini soup topped with crisp ribbons of fried parsnip.
Cured lardo pizza, which serves up a tapestry of petal-thin prosciutto, baby arugula and fig balsamic on a cracker-thin crust permeated with the soulful essence of rendered pork belly, is a perfect shareable starter - at least in theory. In practice, I'd be hard-pressed to share a single bite.
Those who have searched in vain locally for an authentic spaghetti carbonara need search no more. Chef Fusco's rendition is the real deal, right down to the crackly fried guanciale and the raw egg that gets cooked at the last second by tossing it with the hot al dente pasta.
At the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, and every bit as satisfying, is pork cannelloni, a crêpe-like construction of supple pasta sheets rolled around a savory hash of pork, fennel, tomato and spices. A dash of cayenne in the mix, while not strictly traditional, adds a welcome pinch of pizazz.
If, on the other hand, it's unalloyed comfort food that your palate is craving, you'll find it in a variety of guises, from baked ziti to pappardelle bolognese to a 10-ounce pork chop paillard with a caramelized-apple marmalade. Torta di melanzane, listed on the menu as "eggplant pie," delivers a big slab of lasagna-meets-eggplant-parmesan comfort in the form of thin slices of lightly battered eggplant layered with a bright, tomato-chunky gravy.
Follow the eggplant pie with a silky buttermilk panna cotta or a rustic risotto-crusted blueberry "cobbler," and you'll be so thoroughly comforted by the end of the meal that you may find yourself nodding off before the check arrives. When it does, you'll awake to the happy sight of a surprisingly modest tab. All but two of the entree and pasta options are priced between $10 and $15.
One of those two options is the pine-nut-crusted tuna, which, as it happens, is one of only two dishes I sampled that I can't recommend without reservation. Though the three small filet pieces were cooked rare as ordered and their crust light and crisp, one of them was surprisingly fibrous and chewy.
Even more surprising, given its signature-dish description on the menu, was "chef Tony's family gravy," an otherwise delightful dish that was marred by an overcooked piece of veal braciole and an undersalted meatball.
Gravy's all-Italian wine list is well-matched to the menu - and priced accordingly, with plenty of bottles under $40 and eight wines available by the glass. There's a modest but varied selection of draft beers as well, including Peroni pilsner.
Notwithstanding the occasional misstep, Tony Fusco has quickly gotten Gravy's kitchen up to speed. Now the owners can turn their attention to the dining room, where service from a wait staff with widely varying levels of experience remains spotty. Given the veteran restaurateurs' impressive track record, I wouldn't expect improvement in that area to take long.