1 of 3
Gnocchi bolognese Photo by Beth Furgurson
2 of 3
Flatbread with chickpea and hearts of palm Photo by Beth Furgurson
3 of 3
Diners enjoying breakfast Photo by Beth Furgurson
If the propeller in the window beneath the light Italian-blue awning of the storefront at 821 W. Cary St. is spinning, Dinamo is serving. Natural light from the windows reflects off the tall, gilt mirrors, the reverse-painted glass tabletops and plates on the walls, illuminating the 24-seat dining room. The gleaming steel grill of the Italian espresso machine and the patient spin of those propeller blades speak to the theme spelled out in reverse letters in one of the paintings on the wall: futurismo. A clever irony perhaps — the future of the past, like a steam-punk dirigible. But all that conceptual stuff aside, when you walk in, what you'll experience viscerally is its ease.
You can feel it in the air; the pace is purposeful, yet measured; everything is in order; nothing is rushed or hurried. The recesses of the open kitchen hum with the pleasant sound of compressors turning electricity into coolness itself.
Co-owner Mya Anitai sets the tone with a friendly greeting (and will remember your name if you've been here before). She'll gladly engage in conversation about the World War II-era Italian drone that the "dinamo" engine was salvaged from, or the real origin of the myth of rudeness at Mamma 'Zu, or her degree from the School of the Arts at VCU, or her old band VCR, all while advancing you steadily through as many courses as you'd like to consume. She's friendly and engaged with her clientele while keeping an eye on everything around her. It's her front-of-the house personality and presence that really set this place apart.
It's tempting to think of Dinamo's menu as a combination of some of the best of Mamma 'Zu, Edo's Squid and 8 1/2, co-owner Ed Vasaio's other Richmond culinary landmarks. Thin, crisp pizzas share space with fresh pastas, and hearty Northern Italian dishes featuring beans and polenta juxtapose nicely with shellfish and zuppa de pesce. Veal tongue in parsley sauce and provolone sausage with roasted potatoes call to mind co-owner/chef Brad Wein's dishes from Edo's. A lot of this will be as familiar to past patrons as the simple one or two word listings on the menu. However, the menu can change daily, or even from meal to meal, depending on the whim of the chef.
You'll find a full range of flavors here, whenever you drop in: Spicy Italian sausage, polenta and eggs to-order make for a memorable start to the day, one that will stick with you. Sandwiches like the leg of lamb, and the prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella make for a serious lunch. At dinner, the shrimp cappelletti, delicate sheets of pasta that enfold tender shrimp swimming in sun-dried tomato sauce, is subtle in texture and deep in flavor. The anchovies and flash-fried green-pepper crostini presents a funky umami. The clarity of the broth in the tortellini en brodo lets the subtle flavor of the traditional beef, pork and veal filling come through. Mussels and clams bathed in garlic and parsley spark notes all around your palate, and as small plates stack up around you, remember that after dinner you will want to linger over a rich espresso and homemade desserts, so pace yourself.
And there are items here you won't find elsewhere: matzo ball soup, borscht, corned beef with sauerkraut, whitefish salad. The comfort foods of Anitai's childhood round out the menu nicely, adding depth and authenticity to the atmosphere of Dinamo as coffee shop, in addition to a dining destination.
As good as dinner here might be, what makes it a real addition to the VCU/Oregon Hill scene is its sense of place. This could be your anytime hang, a quick (but not rushed) lunch or regular breakfast spot (think handmade pastries, superb espresso and the morning paper).
Given its location, if you wanted to be über-cynical, you could say Dinamo is an island of cool in a sea of hipster, but that's too easy. The steady pulse of the propeller blades are a slow metronome keeping steady time in the midst of the bustle of an ever-expanding, ever-changing campus and student body. Dinamo is calm and cool and waiting for you to drop in.
821 W. Cary St., 678-9706, dinamorichmond.com
Hours: Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to close; Saturday 5:30 p.m. to close
Prices: Breakfast $5 to $12; lunch $5 to $12; dinner $5 to $24