Arriverderci, mush: Al dente comes to town

Tired of overcooked pasta, menus dotted with misspellings (Dish's faves: proscuitto for prosciutto, focacca for focaccia, linguini for linguine), and a general lack of imagination in local Italian eateries? If so, you're not alone. But before you give in and go French, listen up.

Ristorante Al Dente, a new Venetian-inspired restaurant owned and operated by Karim and Joia Sellam, plans to open May 27 in the Eastern Standard spot above Escafé. The walls have been done up in a luminous amber shellac, and opulent Venetian tapestries should be arriving any day.

Although most restaurants hereabouts do little more than reinforce culinary stereotypes, there's a lot more to Italian cuisine than pizza, Alfredo sauce, and spaghetti and meatballs. (Actually, these last two don't even exist on the Italian peninsula, but are actually American misinterpretations.) But now that the world is shrinking, diners are demanding more authenticity in world cuisine.

Ristorante Al Dente aims to satisfy this demand and raise the bar for what has come to be accepted-­ and generally appreciated– as Italian food in Charlottesville.

Which explains the name. Translated literally as "to the tooth," al dente refers to the desired consistency of cooked (dried) pasta– it should be just firm enough to resist the bite. Fresh pastas, like ravioli, are much softer when cooked.

Karim, who worked for six years as a chef and solicitor, or battitore, for some of Piazza San Marco's finest restaurants (we're talkin' $5,000 meals), remembers American tourists asking him specifically for pasta cooked al dente. "They had to come all the way to Italy to have pasta cooked the right way," he says.

Karim and Joia, who met in Venice's famed piazza four years ago, want to save us a trip by bringing the best of Italy to downtown Charlottesville. "We feel that people here are ready for real Italian food in an elegant, upscale environment." Joia says.

Real Italian food starts, but certainly doesn't stop, with olives, fresh bread, and pasta. "Like fashion, Italian cuisine at its best combines the old and the new with flair and fantasia," Karim explains (in fluent Italian).

"Pasta doesn't have to be spaghetti or fettuccine. Why not gnocchi made with carrots?" Al Dente will have a full menu-­ from antipasti to handmade pastas to dolci (desserts) like homemade tiramisù. And since it's inspired by Venice, one of the most magical cities on the sea, expect a strong selection of fish dishes, like scampi (prawns, not shrimp!) and maybe even an inky squid or two.


How hot is too hot?

 You don't need Dish to tell you that Bizou is one of the hottest lunch and dinner spots on the Downtown Mall, with hip and hungry diners willing to wait up to two hours for the generous portions and lively ambience.

But what you might not know is that things got a little too hot in Bizou's kitchen last week. We're talking smoke-hot. If you showed up for lunch on Tuesday, you would've found the doors locked, the front window covered up with newspapers, and a sign on the door that read "closed due to fire– come visit us at Bang!"

We didn't smell any smoke, but since the offices of this paper are located in the same building as Bizou, we didn't waste any time checking with the fire department.

Steve Walton was the officer in charge on Sunday, May 4, the date of the unfortunate incident.

"They saw some smoke coming from behind where their stove and fryer were," he told Dish. Walton also noticed charring on some old wooden paneling behind the stainless steel wall panels. "It looked like [the damage] had occurred over a period of time– not just on Sunday," he said.

If you've ever sat at the counter on a Saturday night and seen Bizou's busy chefs in action, you'll have no trouble visualizing the gradual effects of years' worth of dancing flames, flying salmon, and spattering oil– perhaps one of the only disadvantages of an open, diner-style kitchen.

Once they located the source of the smoke, firefighters used a water-based fire extinguisher to saturate the charred wood. Fire Marshall Ben Powell and Building Inspector Tom Elliott advised the staff what they needed to do to get back in business.

Bizou re-opened for dinner on Friday, May 9– still hot, but now also non-smoking.