More often than not, when you pull up in front of Alberello, a counter service eatery/gourmet mini-market that opened last September in the spanking new Veranda complex south of Chapel Hill, you’ll find a small three-wheeled delivery truck parked out front.
It’s a 1978 vintage Piaggio Ape, and it’s every bit as cute as its name suggests; ape is Italian for bee. Owner/chef Brendan Cox and his wife, Leslie, who also own the acclaimed Oakleaf in Pittsboro, plan to use the diminutive truck for deliveries once it’s approved for street use.
In the meantime, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you hopped in and took it for a little gastronomic joy ride – figuratively speaking, of course. What you’ll actually do is open Alberello’s front door and step inside.
There you’ll be greeted by a casual, cheery space with baskets of local produce and artisanal products on wooden tables just inside the door. To your right, on a wall dividing the market from the dining room, are shelves laden with olive oils, canned San Marzano tomatoes and other Italian goods, and a glass-fronted refrigerator stocked with more than two dozen, mostly European beers.
On shelves to your left, more nectar for the epicurean bee: a carefully chosen all-Italian selection of some 80 wines, with prices topping out at around $30 a bottle. Those retail prices are even sweeter when you discover that you can buy a bottle and enjoy it in the restaurant with your meal, with no corkage fee.
Buzz on up to the counter, where you can place your order, as soon as you can tear your eyes away from display cases filled with charcuterie, cheeses and fresh pastas, and domed cake stands brimming with Italian pastries.
The menu on the wall behind the counter lists 16 sandwiches on house-baked focaccia (ciabatta, white or wheat baguette, and gluten-free bread available for a $1 upcharge), and a handful each of small plates and entrees. A printed sheet on the counter rounds out the offering with a daily changing selection of fresh pastas and sides, as well as a couple of soups, a market salad and a sandwich special.
Sandwiches cover the spectrum from the #1 (porchetta, arugula, sweet peppers and parmigiana spread) to the #16 (goat cheese, arugula, artichoke and olive spread). Fennel fans can get their fix with the #8 (roasted chicken, pesto, marinated fennel, provolone and arugula) or the #8 (finocchiona, sweet and hot peppers, cippolini onions and fresh mozzarella).
It pays to keep an eye peeled for the #17 (the daily feature), too. That’s how I recently scored a sandwich starring a thick, unctuous slab of house-made testa, a rendition so rich and smooth it could be mistaken for paté.
Generously filled and available cold or grilled on a flat panini press, the sandwiches are reasonably priced at $9.75. Entrees, on the other hand, are a downright steal at $13.49, including a hunk of focaccia and your choice of side.
The list only includes three entree options (and a couple of small plate variations), but you can’t go wrong whether you opt for textbook roasted half chicken, the pasta del giorno, or roasted rosemary pork (shoulders brined for 48 hours, slow-roasted overnight, pulled off the bone and reformed into a terrine of crusty, fatty porky goodness, served hot).
One day the pasta might be “our sheep’s milk ricotta” with sage butter and parmesan. The menu is peppered with the word “our,” which Brendan Cox fans will know translates to “expertly house-made.”
Another time, it might be square-sided spaghetti alla chitarra, noodles whose shape and slightly rough texture are ideally suited to holding a sauce – say, the classically simple cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper). Having sampled both of these, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the pasta del giorno is another can’t-miss proposition.
Contorni (sides) are so tempting – butter-braised Savoy cabbage, roasted Brussels sprouts brightened with a splash of vincotto, fingerling potatoes with Sicilian lemon oil, a soul-soothing bowl of rosemary polenta – that choosing just one is a challenge. The solution (and a vegetarian’s dream, come to think of it): your choice of three sides, in ample portions to make a meal, for $8.49.
Well, almost a meal. If you can resist the siren call of those pastries at the counter, you’ve got more will power than I do. How about an individual hazelnut-frangipane Nutella tart, encased in a crisp pastry crust and a top layer of dark chocolate ganache? Or a delicately perfumed lemon ricotta cake – which, to cap off your joy ride, you’ll naturally want with an optional drizzle of honey.
72 Chapelton Ct., Chapel Hill; 984-234-3017
Atmosphere: cheery, casual, family-friendly
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and efficient (counter service)
Recommended: sandwiches, roasted rosemary pork, pastas, sides, desserts
Open: Lunch and dinner daily (open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Reservations: not accepted
Other: beer and wine; 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: ☆☆☆☆☆ 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.