Enoteca's Excellence

Downtown has another winner on its hands--one even a bad day can't ruin

The bad day is a universal experience. Hair, people, businesses--we all have bad days, and a true test of one's mettle is how we respond to them.

Trust me when I say that during my first visit, Enoteca Pizzeria Wine Bar was having a bad day (presumably made worse by a ne'er-do-well undercover restaurant reviewer showing up). But for Enoteca, and for those who enjoy pizza, wine and other Italian-themed cuisine, there's good news: The folks at Enoteca responded well, and while this restaurant has some room for improvement, it's a place I'd recommend.

Located on the northeast corner of Church Avenue and Congress Street, Enoteca appears to be providing downtown with a much-needed success story. On two of my three visits, the restaurant was at or near capacity. The décor, while not terribly unique, is nice, pulling off the urban-wine-bar thing well. The walls are painted different vibrant colors, including dark mustard/orange, red, yellow and blue. The look is highlighted by black and wood-trimmed modern tables (no booths here), and blue and yellow hanging lamps. There's also an outside dining area that's oft-used and appreciated, and jazz music is piped in at an appropriate volume.

When Garrett and I made our first visit, on a recent weekday evening, we walked in and weren't sure what to do. There is neither a sign nor a host directing customers whether to take a seat or wait, and after wondering what to do for a bit, we seated ourselves. Our server quickly gave us menus and got us water and bread, but after that, things got complicated. Our wait times started to rise. After a while, I realized that our server was the server for Enoteca that night. I eventually asked her about this, and she apologized, informing us that some other servers had not showed up--and that she'd only had this job for three days. Great.

She brought us our wines--I ordered a glass of the Colognole chianti rufina ($7.25), one of about two dozen available by the glass, with a lot more offered by the bottle, and Garrett got a flight of three two-ounce pours of different Italian reds ($8.50).

We soon after ordered appetizers, the antipasto plate ($8.95) and the bruschetta ($8). A nice feature of the bruschetta: an order consists of four pieces, and you can mix-and-match from six toppings options (although Enoteca was out of one option). We chose the sun-dried tomato pesto with shaved parmesan, the caramelized onion and goat cheese, the mozzarella/tomato/basil, and the tomato/anchovy/basil mix. The toppings were amply applied on top of delicious rustic charbroiled flatbread with garlic and extra virgin olive oil, and were all fantastic.

We were only able to discover how good the bruschetta and the antipasto plate (with the usual meats and an amazing aged provolone providing a nice surprise) were, however, after negotiating with the only busboy on duty to get us napkins and silverware.

For main courses, I went with a pizza (the only on-menu dinner option), the pizza alla Napoletana ($10.50). The restaurant seems to always offer four to six pasta and meat specials, which is a lot. They'd benefit from making at least a handful of regular menu items to flesh out their menu. On this night, Garrett ordered the pork chop topped with gorgonzola, served with penne al ariabatta (a steal at $13.95, including a side salad).

Garrett's dish was delivered quickly by our harried, yet hard-working and charming server (Note to management: Give this woman a raise!), and it was fantastic. The chop was huge and juicy (albeit a bit dry close to the bone) and complemented in a daring, strong fashion by the cheese. The tomato-rich pasta course was also a hit; I ate about half of it, because my pizza was nowhere in sight.

A full 20 minutes elapsed between the arrival of Garrett's dish and my pizza. The server apologized profusely, explaining that a large table full of folks who had all ordered pizzas were ahead of me, and that she didn't want to hold back Garrett's dish (a good call). She offered me a salad while I waited.

Finally, the pizza came, topped with lots of mozzarella, mushrooms and veal sausage--but no roma tomatoes, as the menu promises. At this point, the bartender/manager came over, apologized and promised this would never happen again. The desserts--cannoli and the triple chocolate mousse, both of which were delectable--were on the house.

Even though the meal was in many ways a disaster, two things won Garrett and me over. One, the food was consistently delicious and well-prepared. Two, the people who were there were all working their behinds off, appropriately apologetic and, frankly, charming.

We returned for a weekday lunch-hour visit. For lunch, Enoteca is more cafeteria-style, with pizzas, pastas, paninos, salads, soup and other entrées available. It can be a bit chaotic. You get your food and/or put in your order, pay and find a seat, On this visit, the last part was a challenge--every seat in the bustling restaurant was taken. We eventually found two seats at the end of the bar. I got a slice of combination-like pizza ($3.95) and a chicken parmigiano panino ($6.50), while Garrett got the lasagna alla Roma ($6.50). All of the food was fantastic, and we were out of there in less than a half-hour.

Finally, we returned on a weekend night for dinner, when the restaurant was almost full, just to make sure our first dinner experience truly was a bad day. For appetizers, we got the cozze santa magherita (mussels in pinot grigio, garlic, herbs and lemon, $8.95) and the portobella roma (a 'shroom topped--not stuffed as the menu says--with Italian sausage and herbs, then placed in a fontina gorgonzola sauce and black truffle oil, $8.50). The mussels were good; the mushroom was spectacular.

For the main meal, I ordered the spaghetti alla olio, featuring garlic, capers, chiles and shrimp ($14.95), and Garrett got the Vesuvius pizza (caramelized onion, smoked mozzarella, goat cheese, artichoke and red pepper, $10). Both top-notch dishes were delivered promptly.

Yes, that first visit had indeed been a bad day. But we didn't have a single bite of sub-par food on that day, or either of the subsequent visits. Downtown indeed has another success story on its hands--one that even a bad day can't ruin.

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