“Maybe we should have made a reservation,” I said when we walked into Farina and saw the nearly full dining room.
Who would have thought we’d need one? It was early on a Wednesday night in North Raleigh, and as far as I knew it wasn’t “kids eat free” night.
Turns out we’d stumbled into a special of a different sort, one geared toward a more sophisticated clientele than the chicken-finger set. As our server seated us (we had lucked into one of the few remaining tables), she informed us that all wines are half price on Wednesdays.
And we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill midweek special. When owner/chef Nunzio Scordo took over the former Paparazzi space in Lafayette Village, he got the restaurant’s wine inventory in the deal. The cellar includes a number of premium wines with prices that aren’t a good match for Farina’s neighborhood Italian concept – or for Driftwood Southern Kitchen, Scordo’s other restaurant in the same shopping center. So he’s selling them off at bargain prices. It doesn’t take a master sommelier to tell you that Dom Pérignon at $100 a bottle in a restaurant is some serious oenophile bait.
The Wednesday night wine deal isn’t the only surprise that Scordo has up his sleeve. His interpretation of “neighborhood Italian” is itself a refreshing twist on the concept, expressed in a menu that offers traditional and contemporary fare in roughly equal measure, under the headings of “Old School Italian” and “Italian Our Way.”
A starter of Grandma’s homemade meatballs, made with pork and beef and served in a rustic marinara sauce, conjures up images of red and white tablecloths in Little Italy. Goat cheese-stuffed peppers, their filling spangled with raisins, capers and pine nuts, take you all the way back to Sicily.
The obligatory fried calamari deliver on their “crispy” promise but peg the needle a little too far past the ideal on the chewiness scale. Better to wade over to the “Italian Our Way” side of the menu, where you can net some supremely tender grilled octopus tossed with gigante beans and pepperoncini in a basil vinaigrette.
In the mood for a salad? Kick it old school with a classic Caesar, or surf a trendy wave with a medley of shaved Brussels sprouts, radicchio, walnuts and red grapes in a sherry raisin vinaigrette. Top the salad of your choice with chicken, salmon or shrimp to turn it into a light entree.
The Italian-made wood-burning oven that commands center stage in the dining room will no doubt prime a lot of palates for a pizza. More often than not, the oven turns out a textbook thin, beautifully blistered crust. Even when the pizzaiolo misses the mark by a few seconds (and in an oven this hot, seconds count), it’s still a better-than-average pie. For those willing to take a chance, options range from classic Margherita on one side of the menu to wild mushrooms with fontina, truffle oil and a sunny-side-up egg on the other.
There’s nothing risky, on the other hand, about an order of fresh pappardelle pasta with bite size morsels of lobster (the meat of a whole tail) and bright, barely warmed cherry tomatoes in a white wine-saffron butter sauce. And if you’re hankering for some cold weather comfort, then Sunday Gravy – a hearty red sauce chockablock with chunks of Italian sausage, meatball, beef short rib and al dente rigatoni – will put you in hibernation mode in a hurry.
You can also get the short rib, braised in red wine and served with wild mushroom ravioli in a red wine sauce, as a main. The entree list leans more heavily to traditional fare than the rest of the menu, with eggplant Parmesan and veal/chicken variations on marsala, piccata and Parmesan classics accounting for nearly half the offering.
The kitchen had run out of veal the night I planned on ordering the marsala, but a roasted half chicken provided ample consolation. Juicy beneath an exemplary oven-crisped skin, the bird was served on a bed of Italian sausage (which was overcooked, the only off note in the presentation), and roasted potatoes, with pickled cherry peppers delivering a bright counterpoint.
An affogato, pairing vanilla and sea salt caramel gelato and Larry’s Beans cold brew coffee, will bring the meal to a satisfying conclusion. So will tiramisu, laced with a generous glug of Marsala and served in an oversize caffe latte mug.
Taking its cue from the food, Farina’s atmosphere is a casual blend of traditional and contemporary. The only linens on the buffed wood tabletops are the red-striped bistro towels that are nowadays fashionable as napkins. Sinatra pops up only occasionally in the eclectic mix of background music. Vintage posters advertising pasta brands and apéritif wines hang on vibrant walls of tomato red. On one column, a sign declares “Free Wine ... Yesterday.”
The message is tongue-in-cheek, of course. The Wednesday night wine specials are ongoing, though, and there are still a few prize bottles on the list. But sorry, the Dom is sold out.
8450-100 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh; 919-890-0143
Atmosphere: casual, vibrant blend of traditional and contemporary
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: generally friendly and attentive with occasional minor lapses
Recommended: grilled octopus, lobster pappardelle, Sunday gravy, roasted half chicken, tiramisu
Open: Lunch Sunday, dinner nightly.
Reservations: recommended on weekends and Wednesdays (half price wine night)
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest 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.