Even before the collapse of disgraced real estate developer Justin French's empire and his guilty plea to federal fraud charges, there were business casualties. One such case was a lease dispute between French and Gary York, owner of Broad Street eatery Enoteca Sogno, that led to the restaurant being forced to close in the fall of 2009. The closure meant the loss of an excellent restaurant that was a draw to a lonely stretch of Broad Street. York announced that he would reopen elsewhere, so we waited. And waited.
Finally he found a space, on Bellevue Avenue on Richmond's North Side, that was formerly occupied by eccentric eatery Bella Arte. Still, we waited. Between shifting requirements from city inspectors and the reality that any complex project takes longer than anticipated, the rumored opening date moved repeatedly until late spring of this year, when York was finally able to open the doors to Enoteca again. The question, to me and others, was whether he would be able to recapture the magic after so long.
The space itself is great. The dark, slightly rustic wood floors are offset with light, cream-colored walls and nicely spaced tables, thus avoiding the overcrowding so frequently found elsewhere. The menu, similar to the restaurant's earlier incarnation, is concise, consisting mainly of pasta dishes with an emphasis on seafood. The crowds, which were there on every visit, are similar, too: a mix of young, urban professionals with a healthy dose of older diners, a rare combination in Richmond.
To start the meal, there's an array of crostini to nosh on. I was excited to try the chopped chicken, but it was a tad disappointing. The thin schmear across the crostini was lacking in flavor. Much better, to my surprise, was the wild mushroom. Finely chopped and sautéed, this spread was subtle yet delicious, the perfect accompaniment to a bottle of Farro Campi, a slightly acidic white from the Campania region of Italy and a steal at $24 (most wines here, by the bottle or glass, are priced very nicely).
The majority of the pastas can be ordered either as tagliatelle or gnocchi, both made fresh in-house. We tried the gnocchi with pesto sauce. Bright and fresh, the pesto radiated basil in a way you typically overlook when the pesto is jarred. The gnocchi was perfectly cooked, tender and creamy, and while the portion size might look like a side dish in some other Italian eateries, it was filling and satisfying. Less successful was the Bolognese, which we had with the tagliatelle. There are many schools of thought on Bolognese and the proper amount of tomato, from copious to sparse; this version, very much on the sparse side for the tomato, came out very one-note and a little flat in flavor. The real winner to everyone, and the favorite of my 7-year old son, Finn, was the Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle. Made with sautéed wild mushrooms drizzled with truffle oil, it's a delightfully tasty dish that highlights the meaty flavor of the mushrooms and manages to avoid the perfumey taste imparted by many commercial truffle oils.
The regular seafood option on the menu is branzino. Stuffed with garlic, slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh thyme and then roasted whole, the result is fragrant and moist. The white flesh is very mild and enjoyable, more so for the deliberate lack of a sauce to cover the flavor. Do be aware, though, that branzino is very bony. If you rush, don't like dealing with bones or have too many glasses of wine to pay close attention to your food, the experience may be less than enjoyable.
Listen carefully when the server explains the specials. One night, I was lucky enough to be at Enoteca for a shipment of soft-shell crabs. Pan-fried with white wine and lemon, these tasty little crustaceans literally burst with moisture and flavor — a real joy of freshness compared to so many places that serve soft-shells frozen out of season. Another night, we encountered calamari as an appetizer. Dusted lightly and then perfectly flash-fried, the squid was firm but not rubbery or chewy, garnering two thumbs up from budding foodie Finn.
On Broad Street, Enoteca Sogno drew diverse crowds with the freshest seafood and house-made pastas served with a well-thought-out wine list that was priced right. A couple years later, it looks like York has been able to re-create that magic combination on the North Side. And that lonely stretch of Broad Street? It's now home to the very excellent Empress (serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, in addition to weekly wine and beer tastings); the owners not only survived their encounter with French but also managed to buy the building when his empire crumbled. Two happy endings from one convicted developer. Who would have imagined?
1223 Bellevue Ave., 355- 8466 Prices : Appetizers, $6 to $14; entrées, $14 to $24. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (Note: For those who like to bring their own wine, Enoteca charges a $20 corkage fee except on Tuesdays, when the fee is waived.)