Pizzeria Toro (Durham, NC)


Recently I wrote about Durham’s Mateo and how it made that city feel ever more cosmopolitan.  While Mateo brings Spanish flair to the Bull City, just down the block Pizzeria Toro bolsters the European vibe with Italian charm and elegance.  It’s not an upscale restaurant, per se, but Toro offers a beautifully simple style, and, more importantly, excellent food.  I’d say it rivals Bella Mia as the best pizza in the Triangle, in a much more attractive setting (for me).  It fits perfectly in Durham, whose restaurant scene continues to evolve with more and more high quality, big-city caliber joints.

Toro occupies a small space that is dominated by a circular wood-fired oven towards the rear of the restaurant.  Actually, the restaurant is shaped like an “L”, with entrances on two adjoining streets: one door to the narrow bar, another (main) door to the dining room.  The space achieves an effortless chic with minimalist decor, but they have clearly put plenty of thought into details like the lighting (spotlights on the wood logs that fuel the oven), flatware, and “hand-towel” napkins.  There’s a communal table in the middle, and high tables along the sides, along with a few window counter seats.  Although the high tables and stools are not really ideal for small kids, the restaurant appears to be adaptable: witness the very small child I saw recently suspended in a basket-like contraption clamped to the side of the table – I’d never seen anything like it.   This place gets crowded, so come early.

The menu is limited in the best way.  A few apps, a few salads, a selection of fine hams (similar to Mateo) and more than enough pizzas to choose from.  The problem is choosing one.  Divided into “red” and “white” categories, they all sound fabulous, many with exotic toppings like spicy lamb meatballs, brussel sprouts, or clams.  Note that the menu changes frequently to feature local seasonal ingredients.  My wife assured me that one pie was enough for both of us, so we chose the onion/taleggio/pistachio (white) pie ($13).  It arrived looking great, with a slightly charred, lightly oiled crust sprinkled with sea salt, hunks of melty tallegio, and plenty of onions.  Indeed, this pie was loaded with raw red and white onions, which was fine by me.  The crust was mildly sweet, and not really as ethereal as that at Bella Mia, but almost as good in its own way.  The toppings were more substantial than I’ve had at Bella Mia.  Overall, the pie tasted great, with perfect seasoning, but I’d be eager to try out a different one next time.  Really minor quibbles would be uneven distribution of toppings and fairly un-crunchy pistachios.  My wife, as usual, was right – the one pie was plenty to fill us both up.

As Durham’s restaurant scene continues to expand in exciting ways, Mateo and Pizzeria Toro are helping to fill some of the Triangle’s bigger culinary voids (excellent tapas and gourmet pizza, respectively).  Judging by the meals I’ve had at each and their initial popularity, here’s hoping these restaurants are mainstays for years to come.  And though I probably won’t mistake myself for being in Barcelona or Florence, I’m thankful that the comparison is even possible.

Enrigo Italian Bistro (Cary, NC)

Cary’s updated Waverly Place shopping center has a lot of nice features – lovely fountains, movies and concerts on the lawn, a small children’s playground, a Whole Foods outpost that is not insanely crowded like Raleigh’s Wade Ave. branch – but it’s a work in progress, and it what it really needs are some great tenants to bring excitement (and people) to the area.  A few decent restaurants and shopping options would help the developers realize their purported goal of emulating the success of Raleigh’s North Hills.

One of the first handful of tenants that is in place is Enrigo Italian Bistro.  It occupies one of the prime spots in the shopping center, with a flowing, expansive, indoor-outdoor setting with a dino decking that allows diners a pleasant view of the courtyard’s grassy field and fountains.  Large glass panel doors that almost always remain wide open mean that the restaurant is really half inside, half out.  The decor is semi-upscale, and the waiters wear all black, but it’s more of a family restaurant than a romantic date spot.

The menu features Italian classics with few, if any, suprises: pastas, pizzas, and panini.  Prices are on the high side, especially for appetizers (for example, fried calamari/shrimp for $12.99).  My wife and I recently split a margherita pizza ($10.99) and a spinach salad ($5.99).  First, there was house-made bread to start off with.  It had a great crumb and was nice and soft, but could have used a touch more salt.  The accompanying olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip was insipid.  The spinach salad was disappointing.  It featured thinly sliced red onions, roasted red peppers (just a few thin strips), and “shaved” parmesan.  The cheese was plentiful, but it was more like little crumbs and tidbits.  The whole thing was brought down by a watery, flavorless balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  The pizza was big, probably around 14″ in diameter, and very thin.  It would be too much food for one person, but not quite enough for two.  The crust was sort of a feathery light crackery-crisp affair that was pleasant enough, but the rest of the ingredients were nothing to get excited about.  The cheese reminded me more of the pre-shredded variety than delicate fresh mozzarella, and the amount of basil on the pie could not have added up to even one leaf.  My wife says the pizza has changed dramatically since Enrigo first opened a few months ago; then, she was thrilled by it, but not this time.

I’d be willing to give Enrigo another shot, because it offers such a pleasant setting, and to try one of their pasta dishes.  And for sure I’ll be back to Waverly Place, especially if they can attract some more good businesses and restaurants.

Review: Panciuto (Hillsborough, NC)

Hillsborough is a charming little town, a place my wife and I frequently imagine ourselves living in.  It’s small and quaint, but hip enough to boast its own LocoPops and WholeFoods outposts.  A bit more stately than similarly funky Pittsboro, Hillsborough is home to some good restaurants, including at least one outstanding one: Panciuto.

Situated right on the town’s main street, the restaurant is distinguished modestly by a small black awning above the entrance.  Inside, it’s very warm and cozy.  The dining area is rather small, and, together with the diminutive bar (just a few stools) and a long-abandoned fireplace, as well as plenty of white Christmas lights, it makes for an intimate experience.  This is an upscale restaurant, and the space feels elegant, but simple wooden tables and a few light-hearted prints along an exposed brick wall keep the place from seeming too fancy or stuffy.  Even though the tables against the wall are arranged quite closely together, this is a great restaurant for a date or special occasion.  Tiny fluted glasses of prosecco brought to the table shortly after seating reinforce this celebratory sentiment.

The menu generally represents a sort of hybrid of Italian and Southern American cooking.  The restaurant is completely devoted to local ingredients; a box on one side of the menu shows you where just about every component of your meal comes from and the distance it has traveled.  Impressively, these range from about walking distance (herbs) to no more than a couple hundred miles (NC seafood).

Panciuto is only open for dinner, Wednesday – Saturday, from 5:30pm – 8:30pm.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays, small plates are the order of the evening.  Our waiter informed us that, in general, these were appetizer sized portions, and suggested ordering two selections per person.  Noticing the large plates around us, we were skeptical and went with the following 3 items:

  •     Ricotta gnocchi en crema with baby beet greens, sunny duck egg, vincotto, and asparagus ($12)
  •     Pappardelle with grilled pulled pork, shiitake mushrooms, arugula, mustard butter, and parmesan ($17)
  •     Grilled pork chop with buttered polenta, fried green tomatoes, and green-garlic tomato gravy ($16)

While we waited, a small bread selection arrived at the table.  It featured a very slender slice of focaccia (fine) and a super-buttery soft and flaky parker house roll (better).  But these were both trumped by a wedge of something whose composition most closely approximated that of a muffin, although it was sliced as though from a thin tea cake.  The flavor was lemon poppy seed with just the right amount of rosemary.  It was soft, delicate, and heavenly.

Thoughtfully, the waiter offered to bring us the first dish as an “appetizer” followed by the other dishes.  This worked out perfectly.  The gnocchi dish was beautifully presented, with tiny thimble-sized soft pillows of ricotta arranged around the egg, adorned with the cute microgreens.  This was indeed a small dish – there weren’t more than two or three asparagus tips on the whole plate, but the balance of flavors was lovely.  The vincotto brought a complex and subtle sweetness, and the egg contributed a luxurious richness.  We were off to a great start.

The next two dishes were much more substantial, with the pasta in particular being enough to fill a hungry diner.  The pork chop (an ossabaw heritage breed) represented the apotheosis of grilling.  It was maybe a little overdone, but the flavor was exemplary.  It sat on a small bed of gnocchi-shaped polenta balls and was topped by a few thin slices of excellent fried green tomato.  A small amount of fresh tasting tomato sauce tied it all together beautifully.  Almost as good was the pasta dish.  As with the pork chop, the pulled pork in this dish had a terrific smokiness, but in this case the meat could have been just a little more tender.  There was certainly plenty of it, and plenty of rich cheese as well – combined with the excellent homemade noodles, it made for wonderful comfort food on a cool night.  I felt that the shiitake mushrooms, which were barely cooked, didn’t contribute much to the dish.  I did like that the mustard butter and arugula lent a subtle lemony edge, but it wasn’t quite enough to balance out the cheesy creaminess of the dish.  Still, it was delicious, even if the overall flavor profile wasn’t as sophisticated as that of the pork chop entrée.

For dessert, we opted for the “crema di cogne with sugar dusted cornmeal zeppole and soft whipped cream” ($6).  This was basically two doughnuts with sort of a soft chocolate pudding/mousse accompaniment – another great value as it was perfect for two people.  For me, the zeppole were rather average – light and airy, yes, but just fried dough.  The cornmeal wasn’t lost in the dish, but didn’t really elevate it, either.  The crema di cogne was rich and silky, and I really enjoyed the chocolate flavor with what seemed to be just a hint of liquor.

Overall, our dinner at Panciuto was one of the best meals we’ve had in the Triangle, and it’s easy to see why chef Aaron Vandemark was a James Beard award finalist for best chef in the Southeast.  His restaurant delivers superb flavor in a lovely setting (and outstanding value for certain dishes).  So while Hillsborough itself is worth a drive to check out, Panciuto makes the town all the more special.

Review: L’Uva Enoteca (Durham, NC)

Over a Thanksgiving weekend filled with food, we managed to fit in a great meal at yet another of Durham’s culinary bright spots, the newly opened L’Uva Enoteca.  Located at the charming American Tobacco Campus, L’Uva is chef Jim Anile’s second restaurant in the Bull City, after the well-received Revolution

The inside of the restaurant is small and narrow, almost cramped, with décor that is unforgivingly modern and sleek.  One wall of the space is lined with semi-opaque glass that looks onto an adjacent lobby.  If the interior dining lacks a bit of warmth, the few tables that spill over into the lobby surely enjoy even less.  On the plus side, there is a nice courtyard patio that ties the restaurant into the rest of the campus, saving it from office building oblivion.  It’s meant to be an expensive looking place, and it clearly achieves an upscale feel, but it’s not a romantic dining room. 

As a party of six, we were seated at probably the largest table in the room, a chunky wooden table whose quasi-rustic nature tempered the modernity of the experience.  In the right setting, it would have been quite a charming seating arrangement, but, within the narrow confines of the space, the table was angled into a corner such that the wait staff was almost constantly passing (squeezing) through right behind us on their way to and from the kitchen.

The menu is Italian in a modern way, and changes often, in very much the same vein as Durham’s Piedmont.  One thing I found very appealing about L’Uva’s menu was the option, for many of the pasta dishes, to order a small or large portion.  In the age of enormous servings, this is a great way to both eat a more appropriate amount and save a bit of money.  I opted for a rigatini with sausage, rapini, and roasted pearl onions ($10 small, $15 large).  Naturally when ordering I completely forgot the portion option, and ended up with the large.  My wife ordered the evening’s special: beef tenderloin/spinach-goat cheese raviolo/ porcini mushroom sauce ($22), and another in our party ordered the very tempting roast chicken/white polenta/orange marsala sauce ($15).

The bread brought to our table was a first rate crusty ciabatta, served with an unremarkable olive oil/pesto dipping sauce.  Entrees followed quickly, and were uniformly well received.  My pasta dish featured some beautifully delicious crumbled sausage, and was perfectly seasoned.  It had a subtle complexity and just of hint of spiciness.  I probably could have consumed the entirety of my “large” portion; I imagine the small portions might leave a hungry patron wanting.  My wife’s entrée was perhaps even better, with expertly cooked beef over a winning medley of artichoke and pancetta, with just enough sauce.  The chicken dish was a bit less successful: although the meat was juicy and tender, the white polenta was unexciting in terms of both texture and flavor, and there didn’t seem to be enough sauce to tie it all together.  A couple of side dishes ($3 each) were also ordered: some buttery asparagus and some outstanding roasted brussel sprouts. 

It being a celebratory dinner, a round of desserts was also ordered.  A chocolate crostata ($6) was like a fudgy brownie, and better than average, although my wife didn’t care for the thin pastry wrapping.  Better was an almond-apple tart ($7), featuring some sugared almonds, ultra thin apple slices, and a heavy hit of almond extract.  I thought the pastry in this case was a bit soggy/insubstantial, but the overall flavor was certainly delicious.  The downside to both of these desserts were the extremely unripe strawberry garnishes.  Best of all was some excellent coffee gelato ($6).

To sum it up, L’Uva is another feather in Durham’s cap.  If it doesn’t quite fall into the uppermost echelon of Durham’s finest, it’s because the competition is very stiff.  But it was an excellent meal, and L’Uva should most certainly be considered among the top upscale Italian eateries in the entire Triangle. 


Pulcinella’s (Durham, NC)

Pulcinella’s in Durham is a classic red-sauce Italian-American eatery.  It has an almost timeless, placeless presence to it that is both somewhat comforting and somewhat boring.   These are the kind of places where it seems as though the menu and sometimes the decor haven’t sniffed an inkling of change in 20 years.  You can find these kinds of restaurants all across the country, with surprisingly little variation.

Pulcinella’s fulfills this description with an unglamorous dining room and an utterly predictable menu.  You know what you’re getting here: lots of pastas.  But first, bread.  This came out warm in large triangles, along with a peppery olive oil-crushed roasted tomato dipping sauce.  I didn’t especially like the bread, which was doughy, but I did enjoy the twist on the typical dip.  Bread was followed shortly by a round of house salads (included with each entree).  The salad was forgettable but the house dressing was tasty – in fact it closely resembled the oil/tomato dip for the bread.  I ordered the lasagna ($9.95) and my wife ordered the penne alla matriciana ($10.95), the latter of which is Pulcinella’s take on the classic bucatini all’amatriciana.  The orders came out quickly.  The first thing you notice is the ludicrously large portions – each entree was easily three meals worth of pasta.  So you get a good value for your money.  But as for the taste, well, I found the lasagna to be quite bland.  My wife’s pasta had more flavor, thanks to the bacon, but just was not inspiring at all.  Looking down the table at our other companions, each dish looked strikingly similar – pasta loaded with red sauce.  To be fair, the tomato sauce itself did have a generally bright, fresh taste to it.  Still, we had plenty of leftovers.

We also ordered a round of desserts to go.  They were incredibly small portions in comparison to the absurdly massive entrees.  The lemoncillo-mousse cake was the clear highlight here, although I thought it was overly sweet.  Everyone thought the cannoli were too sweet.  You can either get two tiny cannoli or one larger one, but I can’t recommend either.

If you want a quintessential red-sauce experience with friendly service, Pulcinella’s may be your place.  But as for me, I’ll continue searching the Triangle for fabulous Italian food.

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