FOOD- THE EATER- Bloody good: But the bar has issues
PHOTO BY RYAN HOOVER
In Federico Fellini's 8 ½, Guido is an Italian film director struggling to meet his adoring fans' expectations while creating something original for the critics— he's out of ideas, feeling the heat, and dreaming of escape. The film's a classic, but I think Guido juggles his anxious actors and angry lovers with the finesse of limp spaghetti.
So titled because Fellini had made 8 movies before its 1963 release and the premise was loosely (ha!) autobiographical, 8 ½ swings from spectacle to seriousness and back, leaving me a little unsure of what kind of audience it meant to attract. And this brings me to the restaurant.
Open for dinner nightly, Sunday brunch, and now lunch, Fellini's #9 is, along with with Il Cane Pazzo and Sal's, one of three Italian sit-down restaurants on the downtown mall right now.
Excluding sunny, warm weekend evenings when bubbles spill out onto 2nd Street NW from a machine in a second story window, the building presents an austerity that might not attract the tourists the others can. If it's counting on a local audience, I think it needs to offer a consistent dining experience.
I tried every meal at Fellini's #9, except its weekend late night menu, and lunch is my favorite; carbs abound.
The $7.95 special includes a salad of mixed greens, tomato and onion in a sweet balsamic vinaigrette, homemade focaccia bread and olive oil, and a pasta entrée– your choice of spaghetti with meatballs, lasagna, cannelloni, or shrimp with linguine (and vegetarians can be easily accommodated). The portions are perfect, and a brilliant decision is made before you even get there: they use Charlottesville's own Mona Lisa pasta.
My dining companion's linguine with shrimp was recommended, and I liked it. The pasta was chewy and salty in a buttery sauce, and when she said she tasted cinnamon, I believed it.
My lasagna was exactly how I like it: soft, sauce on every layer, no ricotta on any layer. And the sauce was Bolognese, of which any good northern Italian (bon giorno, Senor Fellini!) would approve.
I also had a pleasant dinner. The soup of the day, tomato and mushroom bisque, was delicious ($5.95). It had a subtle crunch and a pesto drizzle matched the aesthetic to the taste. While I love that they're locavores with Mona Lisa, their burger ($13.95) with locally farmed beef, bloody mary ketchup, and 3 Sisters' mustard was in need of salt and moisture— even when medium rare (to order, perfect). Easy solution: local cheese.
And, when in Rome, order Italian. I know that I could, and should, have had pasta carbonara the real way ($15.95/$9.95 whole/half), creamy and garlicky tortellini with sausage ($17.95/$11.95), or braised beef with polenta ($23.95).
I was cozy in my corner of dark hardwood walls, with a fire in the fireplace and live music pouring into the dining room from a skilled pianist playing a baby grand in the bar, separated from us by an open doorway. A group of women gabbed in the booth next to me, getting dinner before seeing Neil Diamond at the arena. A couple across the room appeared to be on a first, maybe second, date. A gritty regular ate at the bar, invisible to the two groups near me. We were all being well cared for by our servers.
It would almost feel like an Italian Alpine hideaway, a setting that matches the care they give to their food.
But the interior is homely. Most of the chair upholstery is mismatched, and the pastel floral fabrics are faded and worn. The art on the hardwood walls is also inconsistent— local art, perhaps, with a couple of posters for Fellini flicks, yellowing with age.
And the bar appears to set a different standard for itself than does the kitchen. With a specialty martini list printed on the menu, I expect to see higher quality liquors used for rail drinks than Aristocrat vodka. All of the promised garnishes need to be in stock. When I ordered wine, it was fresh, but the menu didn't specify the vineyard or vintage.
Examining the drinks that lined the bar on a crowded evening, I got the impression that beer and hard liquor are de rigueur at Fellini's, a place whose 1980s incarnation was steeped in hard-drinking debauchery. Things have clearly toned down, as there's now a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary buffet– though I might implore the staff to be more vigilant about stocking their full array of spices, pickles, and vegetables every week. (Two years after my first Bloody Mary bar experience, I missed the horseradish, dill spears, and pickled okra.)
Brunch was humorous. My friend ordered the eggs with Dam sauce, two eggs cooked to order "centered" in focaccia with spinach and pancetta. "Dam," unexplained by the menu, should be read literally: a circle is cut out of the center of the focaccia, "damming" the egg and creating a reservoir in the bread for it.
The missing cut-out turned out to be one of my two focaccia "biscuits" with Italian sausage gravy. So as not to have anyone sacrifice either the soft center or the chewy edges of their delicious homemade bread, why not shrink the dough portion and serve one whole focaccia in both dishes? (And do away with the awkward terminology?)
But, again, the food tasted delicious.
Fellini's #9 has fresh talent in the kitchen and in the waitstaff– they're well rehearsed and will perform. Better seating, views, and libations would do a great deal to illuminate the experience for this Charlottesville audience.
Correction: The story originally referred to Neil Young, which was a mistake; the show in question was the December 8 performance by Neil Diamond. The story has been repaired to show the name of the correct musician. Also, the piano mentioned in the restaurant is an upright, not a baby grand.