Review: Gravy (Raleigh, NC)

Is it so difficult to find good Italian, or even Italian-American food, in the Triangle?  Admittedly, I haven’t tried many of the area’s Italian eateries, but I was hoping that Gravy in downtown Raleigh would fit the bill as my go-to place for one of my favorite types of cuisine.  Unfortunately, my experience there was rather disappointing.

Gravy occupies a lovely space in a prime downtown location.  The small dining room is cozy and sleek, with an attractive color palette of light olive green punctuated by white, black, and bright red.  Funky paintings on the wall temper the sophistication just a bit.  It’s a nice place for a date.

The meal got off to a poor start, with some small garlic bread knots that were warm but stale, tough, and chewy.  I love bread, and I was hungry, but I took one bite and set the rest aside.  We moved on to the hard-to-resist arancini (risotto cakes, $7.99), which are golf ball sized balls of cheesy risotto that are breaded and fried.  Yes – it sounds delicious, and these were, with a light golden crust, accompanied by a judicious amount of pleasantly sweet tomato sauce (gravy).  They were easily the highlight of the meal.  For entrees, the regular menu was augmented by some appetizing specials, including a sweet pea/mint ravioli with lamb merguez.  The dish may be more than an occasional special, as I had read a number of positive comments about it online.  My wife ordered it ($15.99), while I went for the lasagna ($12.99), which was described as containing mascarpone and fresh ricotta cheeses.

My wife’s ravioli were buried in an absurdly large amount of thick sauce.  It was just far too much sauce, probably a 2:1 ratio compared to the pasta.  The sauce, which was kind of like a Bolognese, did have a nice subtle zing to it, but all of the vegetables in it, and I’m guessing the meat as well, had seemingly gone through a food processor, resulting in an undesirable grainy texture.  The raviolis themselves were tough.  I liked that the fresh mint really shone through, and the overall flavor was not bad, but the execution wasn’t great.  Still, it was better than my entrée.  My lasagna was topped with an ultra thick layer of goopy melted mozzarella.  It was a bit much, but below that was worse.  The meat in it, and indeed the entire dish, was exceedingly dry.  I’m not sure that there was any sauce in it except for between the very top pasta layer and the thick slab of cheese covering it.  I borrowed some of my wife’s sauce to cover the difference, but eventually I just stopped eating it because it was too dry to continue.  I suspect that if I had ordered something saucier, I would have enjoyed the experience at Gravy a good bit more.

Gravy is the kind of restaurant you really want to like – the kind of place that could really boost the city’s culinary reputation.  The service was courteous and professional.  But, in terms of the food, I’d put it roughly on par with its downtown counterparts Caffe Luna or 518 West.  None of them will ruin your day or make you swear off Italian-American food forever, nor will they leave you hungry or set you back way too much money (although I expected better for the money spent at Gravy), but they probably won’t wow you either.  And so the search for great Italian food continues.

Rating:  * * 1/2