Restaurant Review

Each week, a savory temptation

CorrespondentNovember 18, 2011 

  • 406 Blackwell St., in the American Tobacco Campus, Durham


    Cuisine: Italian

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: urbane

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: enthusiastic but variable in experience

    Recommended: menu changes weekly; homemade pastas always a good bet

    Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday.

    Reservations: recommended on weekends

    Other: beer and wine (exclusively Italian list); get a sitter; good vegetarian selection

    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.

Just inside the entrance to L'Uva, bottles of wine - all from small wineries in Italy - are displayed on wire racks. Directly in front of you, more bottles stand on shelves behind a small walnut bar, where they're joined by neat rows of tumblers (for wines by the glass), stemware and an espresso machine.

At the end of the bar, a string of sausages hangs against a spotless white ceramic tile wall. It's a fetching scene, and aptly captures the spirit of an Italian enoteca - a small shop that sells wines, often with a modest menu of casual fare to go with them.

But fans of owner-chef Jim Anile (of whom there are many; Anile is also chef-proprietor of the estimable Revolution, and before that was executive chef at Il Palio for six years) know that he'd never be content to let the food take a back seat.

Authentic Italian

Indeed, it was the aroma of those air-cured sausages, as much as their appearance, that motivated the chef to hang them near the entrance. He wants their garlicky, spicy perfume to prime the palate for a menu that celebrates the simple, made-from-scratch fare of Italy's neighborhood restaurants.

To translate that menu onto the plate, Anile hired native Italian Vito Parisi, who had been his executive sous chef at Il Palio. Parisi's two decades of experience in European kitchens shows in his faithful renderings and generally high level of execution.

The menu changes weekly, though some of the more popular items are held over for longer periods. Bruschetta topped with citrus-marinated shrimp earned a well-deserved encore appearance recently. So did a salad of roasted beets, oranges and ricotta salata - a stunning stained-glass-window of a presentation on a plate drizzled with vinaigrettes made from the juices of the beets and oranges. An antipasto platter of mortadella, salami and prosciutto is a likely bet to become a permanent fixture.

Roasted pumpkin ravioli, sautéed in brown butter and topped with crushed amaretti cookies and fried sage leaves, would be welcome for an indeterminate engagement. Like all pastas - like pretty much everything here, for that matter - the ravioli are made in house. And, like all pastas, they're available in small and large portions.

The barley- and homemade sausage-stuffed pepper that wowed our table recently is, alas, gone for now. If it reappears, don't miss it. Same goes for a soul-satisfyingly hearty ragout of beef tongue, garbanzo beans and rapini.

Plenty of choices

Fortunately, for every mouthwatering temptation that disappears from the list another tempting option takes its place. If the rigatini with roasted eggplant, pesto and mozzarella you've been pining for is gone by the time you arrive, the rigatini with pork sausage, rapini and roasted pearl onions ought to provide ample consolation.

Spinach and venison sausage risotto no longer on the menu? Cremini mushroom risotto with rock shrimp and asparagus, a different riff on the same theme, is every bit as satisfying. That beef tongue ragout got your mouth watering, but it's nowhere to be found? Try the pork loin with white beans, artichokes and pancetta.

Roasted chicken, served over white polenta with orange marsala cream sauce, was marred by a dry breast meat when I ordered it. The dish has earned at least one reprise appearance on the menu, though, so I'm inclined to chalk my experience up to a momentary lapse in the kitchen. Happily, such lapses are infrequent.

Cozy and modern

Like the restaurants that inspired it, L'Uva is an intimate space, with seating for 40 or so at closely spaced tables. A sheltered, heated patio doubles the capacity in all but the most inclement weather.

The dining room's urban modern look - woven leather and chrome chairs at stark white tables, rich wood paneling on ceilings and walls, and warm lighting from pendant clusters of bulbs that call to mind bunches of the restaurant's namesake grape - almost makes you forget it's in one of the restored warehouses of the American Tobacco Campus.

If all that sounds designer-ish, rest assured that the look and feel of the place are mellowed by touches like those wine bottles and sausages near the entrance. Of course, sampling from the thoughtfully chosen wine selection doesn't hurt the mood, either.

But those sausages hanging by the bar are not for sale

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