There are two ways to enter Posta Tuscan Grille, the restaurant in the new Marriott City Center in downtown Raleigh. You can pull up to the hotel's porticoed entrance, hand your keys to the valet and stroll through the grand lobby. Or you can skip all that and enter the restaurant directly through its separate entrance on Fayetteville Street. Either approach is sure to lead to a richly rewarding meal, though the difference between the two sets the tone for an experience that can be as extravagant or as simple as you care to make it.
Management discourages jeans and similarly casual attire, for instance, but the restaurant doesn't put too fine a point on the matter. Posta is a hotel dining room, after all, and as such aims to be as welcoming to weary travelers as to locals out on the town.
The dining room décor seamlessly melds rich upholstery fabrics, soaring mahogany columns and white table linens with colorful Italian pottery, sunflowers in simple ceramic vases, and sepia photos on sunny Tuscan yellow walls into a look that is at once elegant and rustic. Service is among the most polished in town but by no means stuffy.
Executive Chef Gianni Betti follows suit with a menu that covers the Italian spectrum from pizza margherita to rosemary-marinated rack of lamb. Betti and his brother, owner Marco Betti, grew up in Tuscany, where they worked in their father's butcher shop. As an adult, Gianni Betti cooked in the family's restaurant in Florence.
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The chef's culinary background is abundantly evident on Posta's menu. The excellent air-cured salumi -- fat-riddled coppa and fennel-spiked finocchiona -- are made from Betti family recipes. So are the toothsome, all-beef meatballs that star in another antipasto offering. An appetizer featuring house-made veal sausages served over cannellini beans simmered in tomato sauce is likewise rewarding.
Ravioli al ragu toscano serves up house-made pasta filled with spinach and ricotta in a traditional Tuscan meat sauce that's, well, meatier than its Bolognese cousin. In a similar vein, osso buco alla toscana showcases braised veal shank in a rich, dark braising liquid punctuated with caramelized vegetables. The result is earthier and somewhat sweeter than the risotto and gremolata accompaniments of the more familiar Milanese version, but just as satisfying in its own way.
Gianni Betti's repertoire is by no means limited to dishes inspired by his butcher shop boyhood. An appetizer featuring expertly seared sea scallops nestled on a pillowy mound of chickpea purée shows the chef's instinct for uncomplicated presentations that allow the star ingredient to shine. So does an entree offering of baked sea bass, with sauteed spinach and roasted potatoes as its refreshingly straightforward plate companions. And for all its extravagance, a pairing of Maine lobster and farfalle in white wine and extra virgin olive oil is the ultimate simple pleasure.
Dessert offerings couldn't be more classic, with options ranging from panna cotta to semifreddo to fresh seasonal fruit. If Posta's ethereally light rendition of tiramisu is the featured dessert, by all means don't miss it.
Unless you'd prefer to conclude your meal with a cheese course, that is. In that case, you might opt for Parmigiano-Reggiano or Tuscan sheep's milk pecorino, paired with a glass of wine from Posta's extensive Italian-leaning list. With 18 wines available by the glass, including several reserve wines normally offered only by the bottle, you won't lack for options.
Granted, some of those reserve wines are pricey. A glass of the 2001 San Leonardo cabernet sauvignon-cabernet franc-merlot blend will set you back $25. With most entree prices in the $30 range, the tab can add up quickly.
But smaller portions of pasta dishes are available at reduced prices, as are some appetizers and entrees. By ordering carefully, a couple shouldn't have a problem getting out for under $100, including a couple of glasses of wine. And when they leave -- regardless of which exit they choose -- their smiles should be every bit as big as the couple who spent three times as much.