Dining Review

At Travinia, Italy meets California with solid results

CorrespondentNovember 29, 2012 

  • Travinia 1301 Market Center Drive, Morrisville 919-467-1718 traviniaitaliankitchen.com Cuisine: Italian Rating: *** Prices: $$-$$$ Atmosphere: upscale-casual, contemporary Noise level: moderate Service: friendly, variably knowledgeable, for the most part attentive Recommended: lobster mac and cheese fritters, pizzas, wild mushroom carbonara, specials Open: Lunch and dinner daily Reservations: accepted Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; heated patio; parking in lot (complimentary valet parking Tuesday-Saturday nights; weekday lunch valet parking to be added in December) 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.

If Travinia’s name sounds vaguely familiar, be advised that you won’t find it in the dictionary. Nor will Google Translate help, in case you’re thinking it might be Latin for “three vines.” (OK, that’s what I was thinking.)

But that’s pretty close to the mark. Turns out Travinia is a marketing creation, coined to convey a concept – billed as “Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar” – in a catchy way that hints simultaneously at ancient pedigree and modern attitude.

Works for me. And, apparently, for a lot of other people. The first Travinia opened in 2002 in Greenville, S.C., and the chain has already grown to nine locations, with two more slated to open next year in Virginia and Florida. The Morrisville restaurant, which opened in May, is the first in the Triangle.

The fact that complimentary valet parking is offered during prime dining hours – in a strip shopping center, no less – is further evidence that founding partners Mark Craig and Kevin Cox have hit on a winning formula.

No wonder. Every aspect of the Travinia dining experience has clearly been designed with the same marketing savvy as the restaurant’s name.

Starting with the decor, whose fashionable-but-not-too-edgy elements are aimed squarely at the demographic of suburban families and young professionals. The designers score multiple bull’s-eyes with abundant woodwork and stone accents, swirled amber sconces and pendant lights, and a peppermill and bottle of olive oil on each burnished wood tabletop. And, of course, the obligatory open kitchen.

The setting is as evocative of California as Italy, in fact, a design choice that might in part be attributed to the fact that the owners got their inspiration for Travinia while touring the Napa Valley several years ago.

Their visit is reflected on the wine list, where New World wines (mostly California) account for more than half the selection. True to its “Wine Bar” billing, nearly all of Travinia’s 50-some wines are available by the glass. The list is an eclectic assortment of familiar labels (Ruffino, J. Lohr), small production wines (Hindsight Cabernet Sauvignon) and quirky surprises (Vinaceous Snake Charmer Shiraz), with most priced in the $7-10 range.

The “Italian Kitchen” follows suit with a core menu of traditional and contemporary Italian fare, supplemented by a handful of nightly specials that has recently included honey- and pecan-crusted grouper and exemplary lamb chops over asparagus risotto.

A separate small-plates menu is even more freewheeling, with options running the gamut from veal ravioli to jumbo lump crab cake to Italian nachos. Lobster mac-and-cheese fritters, at once lavish and earthy, are the embodiment of Travinia’s ambitiously wide-ranging culinary philosophy, rolled into crispy little balls. With gooey centers of molten cheese and pasta redolent of truffle oil, they’re also addictive.

If the fritters whet your appetite for more earthy flavors, wild mushroom carbonara will scratch the itch in style. Entangled with the mushrooms in a skein of al dente linguine are toothsome bits of prosciutto and green peas, tossed in a parmesan cream sauce that – while not strictly authentic – is light enough that it comes closer to the mark than most.

The carbonara may well be the lightest pasta offering on a list that leans to rib-sticking fare such as fettuccine Alfredo and rigatoni with braised beef short rib bolognese. If you’re looking for something light, your best bet is to pair a simple pasta with marinara and, say, grilled chicken or shrimp from a list of companion protein options.

Pizza wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Travinia’s pies are beautifully blistery and thin-crusted with a satisfying, crisp-chewy bite. The prosciutto and fig pizza, with a post-baking shower of arugula and a drizzle of lemon oil, is surprisingly light and balanced, not at all as sweet as the “black mission fig glaze” in the description might lead you to fear.

Heartier appetites will find what they’re looking for under the heading of House Favorites, where options range from lasagna bolognese amped up with Italian sausage to shrimp and sausage in a spicy arrabbiata cream sauce over parmesan risotto. The free-range veal in veal saltimbocca is so tender that you’ll be inclined to forgive the fact that the promised sage is AWOL.

By and large, though, the kitchen’s performance is solid. The notable exception is dessert, judging by the two I’ve tried: a zabaglione whose “crushed biscotti” proved to be large, tooth enamel-threatening chunks, and an apple crostata that was more like a cross between a pecan pie and bread pudding.

On the bright side, that means you can have another glass of wine for dessert.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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