Corks poppin': Fellini's #9 reinvents history

Barring unexpected construction delays, the new and much-anticipated Fellini's No. 9 should be open for dinner at 5pm on Friday, December 17.

Restaurant owner Jackie Dunkle, who's been orchestrating the transformation of a historic landmark into a vibrant new eatery for the past several months, was arranging for staff training and seeing to other final details when I paid a visit on Monday the 13.

As a sign of an apparently close collaboration between tenant and landlord, building owner Ben May was perched on a ladder in the kitchen, taking digital photos of something up in the attic. "It's evident that Ben loves the building and the restaurant," Dunkle says, "and I really appreciate his passion."

But this restaurateur from Nashville, Tennessee, is certainly not lacking in spunk and dedication. And she can finally answer the burning question– Why Fellini's No. 9?

First of all, Dunkle says, she needed to alter the name in some way to gain ownership, since the original "Fellini's" belongs to Ben May. But more interestingly, the number 9 happens to be of great symbolic significance to Dunkle and her family.

"Nine keeps popping up at important, transitional times in my life," she tells Dish. "My husband, our daughter, and I were all born on the 9, our other daughter was born in 1979, and I left my job at Vanderbilt after nine years." The examples go on and on.

Topping them all is a nine with local relevance: Dunkle discovered the Fellini's opportunity while visiting an uncle in Charlottesville who had recently lost a toe to gangrene. That's right, he has nine toes left!

As an extra bonus, Nine also happens to be the title of the 2003 hit Broadway musical inspired by Fellini's autobiographical film 8-l/2.

Like the name itself suggests, this restaurant seems to achieve an ideal balance between the old and the new, the historic and the whimsical, the remembered and the invented. Fellini's regulars will recognize several original elements in the décor-­ stained glass windows, mirrors, old church pews (cushioned!), a fireplace, framed Fellini movie posters, and the famously naughty wooden dining table known as "the slab." All were lovingly restored by May.

There are several additions as well, starting with a large, inviting, copper-topped U-shaped bar in the center of the main dining room. The (formerly white) walls have been painted mottled shades of golden yellow, adding brightness to the cozy warmth.

Dunkle's taste for whimsy is evident in details like little feathered-trimmed table lamps, colorful ceramic plates, and a set of brown and cream ceramic coffee cups (to be filled with Shenandoah Joe brews), each printed with an unusual first name-­ Lila, Beulah, Winnie.

On one wall will hang the calligraphied memories of the original restaurant that Dunkle collected at a recent First Fridays "storytelling" event. A few favorite Fellini's dishes will appear on the #9 menu, or as daily specials.

Speaking of food, Fellini's No. 9 will feature the Italian fare of chef Butch Obergfell, whom Dunkle discovered in Asheville, North Carolina. Half Sicilian (on his mother's side, obviously), Obergfell has created an attractive menu that combines familiar "Italian" dishes-­ lasagna, veal parmigiano, linguine with clams– with more characteristically Sicilian ones– orange and fennel salad, grilled tuna with fresh citrus, and the operatic "Pasta alla Norma"(penne rigate with tomato sauce, eggplant, and freshly grated ricotta salata).

A predominantly Italian wine list includes everything from pinot grigio to prosecco (Italian sparkling wine)– and I'd bet more than a few of these will be popped this weekend.

Fellini's will be open for dinner only through the holidays. Come January, look for lunch as well. Starting off the live musical entertainment at Fellini's will be opening weekend acts American Dumpster (Saturday 10pm) and jazz pianist Bob Bennetta (Sunday 6-9pm).

At last!
Fellini's #9 owner Jackie Dunkle is ready to open the door this weekend.