Monday night at Incanto
Had another great meal at Incanto last night (in authentic Italian style they're closed Tuesdays). When we walked in around 8:45 the place was so packed you'd have thought it was the weekend, I don't think I've ever seen it so crowded. Looked like a lot of tourists. The owner said it's been like that lately.
- gravlax with fennel salad and local capers
- broccoli di ciccio & escarole salad with lemon-anchovy vinaigrette & pecorino: a brilliant way to serve marinated fresh anchovies
- tuna conserva, fresh borlotti beans, cherry tomatoes & Nicoise olives: wonderful tuna, subtle use of a mix of basils
These went remarkably well with the new 2003 vintage of the Cantina del Taburno falanghina, really holds its own against the acidic dressings.
Also tasted a 2002 Santadi vermentino Cala Silente, nice with a surprising touch of oak (never encountered that in a vermentino before), and the 2003 Planeta La Segreta bianco, a delicious and unique blend of grecanico, chard, sauvignon, and viognier, lots of new oak but nevertheless balanced.
- maccheroni spianati (wide thin flat fresh pasta) with broccoli di ciccio & house-made pork fennel sausage: we almost ordered two plates of this, and I wish we had, good lord this was good
- fettuccine al nero (black pasta) with octopus ragu, cherry tomatoes & hot pepper: very good but a bit undersalted and not quite as intensely flavored as the previous two octopus dishes we've had here (this was the only hint that the chef wasn't there); very nice match for the 2002 Valle dell' Acate cerasuolo di Vittoria
- split a poussin with a guanciale-spiked bread stuffing and fresh beans: perfect with the 2001 Zuc di Volpe refosco dal peduncolo rosso, which was also great with the macceroni spinati; menu says "beans & Triestino" but I'm not sure what that was (an herb?)
- budino di anguria (watermelon jelly) with pistachios: fabulous
- rustic plum cake: yummy, very brown and caramelized, might have been a sort of upside-down cake
The owner brought over a couple of glasses of dessert wine, a nice muscat (? lost the glass label) that was overshadowed by the 2003 Ca Rossa brachetto Birbet.
By Incanto's standards, something of an off night--one dish wasn't perfect.
Re tourists at Incanto: the observation is interesting to me in view of a recent experience there: On my last visit to Incanto, about a month ago also on a weeknight, the owner spent quite a bit of time talking to the couple at the next table, who were from Oklahoma (which was quite obvious from their accents...)...depending upon one's point of view, one could either say the conversation centered around giving the couple a historical view of the restaurant's lineage/background, or that he was simply name-dropping/lecturing them regarding various connections to other restos....whichever or whatever, that seemed to be the table he spent the most time at, and it actually did occur to me at the time while I was evesdropping that the point of the conversation might have been that he was trying to encourage more tourist business by painting Incanto as a destination restaurant and not a neighborhood place (personally I think it stradles the line and isn't sure which it is). The location is a bit out of the way for tourists,and I found myself wondering if they are in some guidebook or if it is simply word of mouth that leads to the surprising number of tourists... The Oklahomans were certainly happy with their meal, so I could see them going home and talking the place up, especially since they appreciated the personal attention..
That was my third visit to Incanto, btw, and I will probably give it a rest for awhile. Yes, the wine list is lovely, though a bit pricey, but I have not found the service to be flawless (as I believe Robert stated in another recent post in the Oliveto thread), and the food, while very good, hasn't been perfect or even outstanding. On this last visit I had the braised pork. Slightly overcooked, slightly underseasoned, but then I had just had a not-as-different-as-one-would think, and absolutely fabulous, pork joint at Shangai during the Oakland lunchtime Chowdown, for a whole lot less money, so that might have clouded my judgment...
However, the main reason I was less than enthused on this last trip related to the evesdropping on tourists in two ways: first of all, I wasn't really evesdropping: rather, the two tops are close enough together and the manager was speaking loudly enough that I couldn't help but listen. Pet peeve of mine, to pay over $100 for a nice dinner for two and have it really be a dinner for four...and secondly, as Robert notes, it was quite crowded, which also meant it was VERY noisy, even on a weeknight...They have taken some steps to improve accoustics but when the place gets full, it can still create quite a din.
Our fondness for Incanto probably reflects having lived in Italy for several years. So many aspects of the enterprise feel very Italian that overall it feels very much eating in Italy. The only other place around here I'd say that about is Oliveto.
Incanto's on the Chron's top 100 list, that probably brings in some tourists. Also in Patricia Unterman's guidebook.
I see no conflict between Incanto being both a neighborhood place and a destination. Most of my favorite restaurants in Italy are both.
re: Robert Lauriston
Funny, that is how I feel about A16. I lived in Potenza for 7 years and in Asolo for 4 years (near Venice). Incanto doesn't quite transport me to Italy the way A16 does, not in terms of the food nor in terms of the ambiance, nor service. I bump into more Italian ex-pats at A16 than any place else. I do agree with you on Olivetto. I could eat there every day if money was no object and if I did not have to cross that damn bridge.
I've been twice now, a couple of months apart (the most recent visit was last week), and my reaction both times has been closer to Susan's than to Robert's. The food promises much -- especially for an offal-lover like me -- but delivers intermittently. Neither of my mains has been better than pretty okay. Primi have varied from good to forgettable; antipasti were not so chancy (those sardines *were* good, and I liked the tuna conserva also). If the wine list, which is varied and intriguing, were priced more attractively, I'd accept the just-decent food and make the schlepp from Berkeley more often. But it's a pretty pricey list -- verging on too, though stopping short of a 3X markup, as far as I can tell. True, the bottles we've chosen (with help, the first visit, from the steward/sommelier) have been very good. But I still found myself taking a medium-deep breath before buying that second bottle each time. (I've neglected to BMO on either visit, though will make sure to do so if I go back.) I will say that the service both times was very good. Overall, we left both times far from unhappy, but without that "it's really okay that I sat for an hour at the toll plaza for this" glow.
re: Jonathan King
What Italian places with a full menu and nice atmosphere do you prefer to Incanto?
Speaking only of the food, I think Oliveto is better (Bertolli's been at it a lot longer), but it's significantly more expensive:
antipasti: $7.50-9.50 vs. $11.50-4.50
secondi: $15-20 vs. $25-28
wine tastes: $3.50-6 vs. n/a
wine glasses: $6.50-11 vs. $8-13.50
And the overall experience ... well, Oliveto's a mile and a half from my house, but I eat at Incanto 3-4 times as often.
For the record, I wouldn't call the service at Incanto "flawless," since that has a negative connotation for me (overelaborate, intrusive, French). I've found it reliably good.