The first time I ate at The Boot, the very first thing I ordered was the fried mozzarella.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Seriously? Mozzarella sticks? Any foodie worth his Maldon salt knows they’re on a restaurant menu for one of two reasons – to soak up booze or to keep the kids happy while the grownups eat real food. And he calls himself a restaurant critic?
In my defense, the bartender (okay, I admit it – I was eating at the bar) said they’re not your ordinary mozzarella sticks. Made from scratch, he said, with fresh mozzarella.
He was wrong about the “fresh mozzarella” part, but otherwise on the money. I’d go so far as to say that when Mom and Dad set their eyes on these beauties, oozing molten mozzarella through cracks in their herb-spangled panko shells, the kids won’t stand a chance.
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Even the warm, tomato-chunky marinara sauce that comes with the fried mozzarella stands out. Made by combining Italian tomatoes, salt and a generous glug of olive oil that has been infused with garlic, shallots, chile flakes and herbs, then simmering for hours, the sauce flies in the face of marinara-making tradition. Yet the result captures the essence of marinara, with the bonus of a supple mouth feel supplied by the olive oil.
The unconventional marinara is the handiwork of chef Andy Perno, formerly sous chef at Piedmont. Perno also helped Andy Magowan open Geer Street Garden, and teamed up with Magowan to open The Boot in Durham’s Rockwood Shopping Center in November.
The partners named their joint venture for the shape of Italy, but they make no bones about their intent to focus on the Italian-American interpretation of that country’s cuisine. Perno’s marinara is just one example of the young chef’s talent for taking a fresh look at Italian-American classics.
As you might expect, the marinara shows up in a number of dishes, from spaghetti and meatballs (made with beef and pork from Firsthand Foods, braised in marinara and meat stock) to chicken Parmesan.
Eggplant Parmesan further bucks tradition by dropping the customary casserole assembly. Instead, thick individual coins of eggplant, lightly floured and fried, form the foundation of a presentation that respects the spirit of the classic dish while shining a brighter spotlight on the meaty texture and flavor of its star ingredient.
If marinara red is the dominant color woven into the tapestry of The Boot’s menu, it is by no means the only hue.
Farfalle tossed in a green pea puree “alfredo” is a pastiche of pale jade sauce spangled with the spring green of English peas, burnt umber dabs of prosciutto, and a buttery shower of grated Parmesan.
Linguine with N.C. clams in their shells presents a more subtle palette, but is no less satisfying.
House-made ravioli in a lemon butter sauce with pine nuts and golden raisins presents a fairly monochromatic theme, too – until you cut into the ravioli and reveal their filling of fresh spinach and ricotta.
Then there are the starters. Mussels, their ebony shells scattered across a skein of al dente noodles in a white wine sauce flecked with pancetta and chile flakes; or Arancini, golden brown orbs floating on a puddle of lemon aioli. Break open their crisp shells to reveal a steamy center of rice, goat cheese and emerald shards of asparagus.
The Italian charcuterie sampler is a study in rosy hues: fennel salami, prosciutto di Parma and meltingly tender house-cured capicola. At the center of the arrangement, a small dish of house-made giardiniera is a kaleidoscope of carrot, cabbage and bright green olives.
Even the sides are worthy in their own right, from crunchy spice-dusted fried chickpeas (which also make an admirable nibbling companion to a glass of wine from The Boot’s short but well-chosen Italian-leaning list) to the soul-satisfying pairing of white beans and braised kale splashed with cider vinegar.
Tiramisu and cannoli (bits of candied orange peel in the filling is a delightful bonus) are deservedly popular dessert options.
For my money, the panna cotta – tinged with sweet bay and sprinkled with toasted pistachios in its latest iteration – trumps them both.
Portions are reasonable (another break from Italian-American restaurant tradition, where a doggie bag is a given), with prices to match. Entree prices top out at $16 for a seafood stew of NC shrimp, clams and mussels in a tomato-fennel broth.
Well-filled sandwiches (options range from meatball to a first-rate Italian sub), priced at $10-12 including herb and garlic fries or salad, reinforce the owners’ aim of making The Boot the sort of casual neighborhood restaurant where people can drop in frequently.
So is the urban-rustic decor, a collage of high ceilings, patchwork-painted concrete floors, vintage pasta posters and panels of patterned fabrics in muted shades on brick walls. Communal tables, whose salvaged wood tops gleam with a new coat of polyurethane, furnish the majority of seating. A handful of booths and cocktail tables offer an alternative to the communal seating.
And there’s always the long bar at the back of the room. You can watch the bartender as he whips up Pisco Sours and Beestings (tequila, black pepper, honey and orange juice), and maybe chat with him if he isn’t too busy. Like the rest of the staff, he’s enthusiastic and well-trained.
If he recommends the fried mozzarella, you know what to do.
2501 University Drive, Durham
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: well-trained and enthusiastic
Recommended: fried mozzarella, Italian meat sampler, arancini, spaghetti and meatballs, farfalle, ravioli, panna cotta
Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly.
Reservations: accepted for parties of six or more
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; 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.