Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Enoteca Emilia: Neighborhood Italian Rocks The Near East Side

      Many of us fondly remember Château Pomije in O’Bryonville, which went from being a casual French bistro to a wine shop to kaput, but there’s finally a restaurant that already has better food and that’s Enoteca Emilia (EE).  For visitors to Cincinnati, the city is built on seven mounts and made up of about eighty-eight neighborhoods.  O’Bryonville, which I think of as a made up neighborhood, is a two block strip along Madison that is bounded by west Hyde Park, south Evanston, and East Walnut Hills. 

Enoteca Emilia Bar Area
Dining Room and Stairway

      According to Carole, an enoteca is a more rural wine bar that also serves snacks (ciccetti), salumi (cured cheeses), and formaggi (cheeses).  (Emilia refers to the Emilia Romagna region of Italy where many of the dishes originate).  That’s the central focus of Enoteca Emilia’s main seating area and the menu offers a variety in each of these selections.  Things, however, got a little more complicated for the restaurant when
its pizza placed second in the Cincinnati Magazine tasting competition a couple of months ago.  At an event celebrating the Pizza Issue’s opening, Neil and I voted for it as our top choice.  Because of this ranking, pizza has become much more popular than the owner had originally intended at the restaurant, but they’re keeping up with demand.

      The next complication is that it now has to live up to more ambitious customer expectations than the owner may have bargained for.  It’s a neighborhood spot, but it seems like some may be looking for a fine dining establishment.  It was always a nice building on a nice block, but a number of restaurants (The Brick Yard – a pizza place, the What’s for Dinner? annex restaurant, which was a lovely paean to California cooking, among other incarnations) have not lasted in this space.  EE has somehow brightened and certainly enlarged the space and, the night we visited, it was packed on both sides of the bar, both downstairs dining rooms, the upstairs dining room, and the large group space.  Although it was very lively, it was neither bustling in that crowded, familiar way that just kills the unpretentious atmosphere of an independently owned, moderately priced space, nor was there a din.  Yes, it’s loud, but we were able to converse quite easily as were patrons at surrounding tables.  One of the most noticeable reasons that this restaurant runs so well is that the staff members – greeters, host, bartenders, servers – are quick, friendly, and professional.  Things kept moving, but I always felt that the interactions we had with staff were individual and genuine.

      We weren’t certain what to order because the menu is quite extensive and there are selections in each section that sounded great.  Fortunately, our server was intelligent and charmingly honest.  Her emphasis was on our experience that evening, rather than pushing to move more food or beverages. The wine list is Italian and there is an extensive range of choices by region, type, and price.   Some are offered by the glass, quartino, or bottle.  We ordered a quartino – a quarter bottle of wine, which resulted in about a glass or so for both of us and, let me tell you, for us that’s enough.  With her recommendations, we settled on three selections and a dessert.  We didn’t order a salad to begin with because, as she said, we could always order another course later.  As it worked out, we decided against that final course since we didn’t want to end up like the proverbial pig’s head with the fruit stuck in its mouth.

Stuffed Figs
      We began with the Stuffed Figs, one of the bar snacks, and it’s the size of an entrée in itself.  The fruit is stuffed with nduja sausage, wrapped in bacon, and topped with a red sauce that is redolent with red pepper.  The sweet, smoky, salty, and spicy elements were in perfect harmony and the carmine red of the sauce with the dark caramel hue of the figs looked like something out of Titian.  Right out of the gates, we were eating a classic dish.  

Pizza Bianco
Like I said, we skipped the salad and ordered the Pizza Bianco.  (The Pizza Margherita is second to none).  It was three cheese with roasted garlic (it had the consistency and taste of a baked onion heart), but the sweet and crunchy cauliflower florets really put the flavors over the top and, surprisingly, were more interesting than the light dressing of truffle oil.  It was a good crispy crust, though the edges were dry.  

Wild Boar Lasagna
      Our server recommended the Garganelli, but I have a mushroom allergy so we chose the Lasagna instead.  It’s an updated (should I say deconstructed?) version that utilizes a rich, deeply textured ragu of wild boar with a parsnip béchamel sauce as both the sauce and as a substitute for the noodles.  I wish it came with more ragu and penne or some type of noodles instead of the rosemary breadcrumbs.  The crumbs, heavily mixed with parmesan, almost overwhelmed what was a delicious offering.  

Fried Ricotta Fritters
The Fried Ricotta Fritters were an excellent dessert and were right up there with the Zeppelis at Graffiato in Washington.  The fritters were piping hot and, though completely cooked, melted when bitten with a sweet cheese taste.  The blood orange marmaletta and warm chocolate sauce just made us long to lick off the plates.

      A few years ago, a friend said that there just wasn’t a good, moderately priced Italian restaurant in central Cincinnati.  We named a few, but she shot them down because they were chains or too far away or what have you.  If you’re reading this, Kathy, put down your jug, move your rump, and drop in at Enoteca Emilia.  It’s better than good.  In a remarkable year of new restaurants opening in the northern Kentucky-Cincinnati region, Enoteca Emilia may be tops.
Enoteca Emilia on Urbanspoon

I enjoyed an evening among our lovely holiday decorations.

No comments: