A friend and I met for lunch at Chris Bianco's Italian Restaurant the other day and I was so pleased to find an independent serving lunch (in the summer no less!), especially when it's a restaurant wedded to local and seasonal ingredients.
Flooded with natural light and hung with a unique collection of art (courtesy of Bianco's dad), the room has a homey quality, the food is terrific and -- What! Ho! -- the natives are friendly. I can't wait to go back.
For starters, we were greeted warmly when we walked in, so the snooty attitude that was an issue with some customers in the past seems to have been 86'd.
And while it's true our server wasn't well versed about the wine (she got a bit mixed up and brought a red instead of the white my buddy requested), she was otherwise personable, efficient and low-key. I love low-key. Low-key is in short supply these days.
The lunch menu takes a page from Pane Bianco, featuring a daily pizza and four sandwiches as well as two antipasti and four pastas.
And of course, the house-made bread, baked by Chris' brother Marco Bianco, is simply off the charts -- its heavy, super-crunchy crust giving way to a moist interior with a lovely pull to it. It's now complimentary.
Rustic pasta e fagiole di controne with house-made orecchiette (pasta and bean soup) tastes like grandma food. If the orecchiette hadn't been slightly under-cooked, it would've been perfect ($8).
Chef Robbie Tutlewski has put the last of Schnepf Farm's peaches into an arugula salad with Crow's Dairy goat cheese and candied pecans ($9.50). Fresh tasting and seasonal, it's a dish with "Chris Bianco" written all over it.
Meanwhile, Francesca's ultra-tender meatballs with tomato sauce, tucked into one of Marco's big old crusty sandwich rolls have made a convert of meatball-resistant me ($9.50). Also first-rate -- a slightly soupy mix of springy cavatelli pasta (love their heft) with Tender Belly bacon, cauliflower and spring onion ($12).
Everything looks and tastes like Chris Bianco food.
Rhubarb parfait -- a tart-sweet layering of fresh rhubarb compote with cannoli cream, rich with ricotta -- offers more proof of Bianco's knack for delicious simplicity.
And this must be said: Portions seem just right -- neither skimpy nor ridiculously over-the-top. You will eat. You will be filled. You will leave happy.
So here's the takeaway: If you've always been a Bianco lover, you can still be one at Italian Restaurant.
And here's the PS: I stopped back by the restaurant last night to get a copy of the menu and ran into Chris, who told me the story behind the name.
Before he opened Pizzeria Bianco, Chris was traveling through his home state of New York, looking for furnishings for the restaurant and was directed to an 85-year-old former Italian restaurant owner who had a beautiful old bar.
He had $600 in his pocket and the bar was worth thousands, but the old woman, who took a shine to Chris, sold it to him for $500. He also noticed a hand-painted sign with a lovely patina that said "Italian Restaurant" and asked if he could buy that too.
She hated to part with it, explaining that her father had made it for the family restaurant in 1927, but she knew she was at the end of her life and she gave it to Chris, who installed the bar and hung the sign in the pizzeria, where it's gone completely unnoticed all these years.
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Today, it hangs just inside the entrance of Italian Restaurant.