In the days leading up to this winter's launch of Giovanni Ristorante, the Nashville outpost of a midtown Manhattan nameplate, we couldn't help peeking at The New York Times' review of the original store on West 55th Street. "Elegant, expensive, predictable," was the venerable paper's assessment, which raised a curious question in local food circles: When it comes to Italian food in Nashville, what exactly is predictable?
While Giovanni and Nieda Francescotti's 15-year-old flagship may be just a drop in New York's garlic-infused ocean of Italian eateries, their pretty restaurant in midtown Nashville fills a flavorful void in terms of cuisine and atmosphere in a city that will never be confused with Little Italy.
The building that formerly housed Layl'a Rul and Chu restaurants has shed its Gaudiesque sculptural facade in favor of a more subdued Tuscan edifice, and the interior glows with warm light from a commanding oversized Murano glass chandelier—which arrived from Venice in 11 boxes—suspended in the two-story foyer. (The Francescottis have an apartment above the restaurant.) A grand open staircase winds to a sultry second level with a central bar, private outdoor room, sweeping views of the nearby Adelicia tower, cozy leather-clad private dining nooks and hand-plastered walls. Fans of the romantic comedy Love Actually can almost envision lovestruck Colin Firth barging in the front door, spying a pretty waitress on the mezzanine above and promptly proposing to her in broken Portuguese.
Open for lunch, dinner and brunch, Giovanni offers a succinct roster of familiar but not clichéd Italian dishes that range beyond the red-sauce staples that might qualify as predictable. Carpaccio in the style of Harry's Bar, caprese salad, salumi, risotto, pancetta and fresh breads punctuate a menu that balances comforting heartiness with moderate portions. Over the next few months, as equipment arrives and things settle down, the restaurant will add homemade pasta and mozzarella to the list.
A recent lunch at the newly opened restaurant was a festive occasion, with business folks and a handful of public officials peppered throughout the main dining room. The crowd at dinner was more eclectic, with quiet couples, larger parties, families with extremely well-behaved children and a steady flow of pretty young things peeking in and out of the sultry lower-level bar.
Elegant appointments and architecture don't come cheap, and we could tell we were in for a fully priced meal when we found no wines by the glass on the wine list. When asked, our server nimbly recited a short list (without prices) of whites and reds available by the glass, then returned to tell us that our selection was not available. We ultimately settled on two glasses of wine that, to our relief, clocked in at $10.75, then tucked into a basket of fresh, if forgettable, breads with salty tapenade.
Maybe the most predictable thing about Giovanni is diners' asking for explanation of items on chef Marco Sedda's menu. Preempting any vocabulary questions we might have had, our gracious, black-and-white-clad server launched into definitions of branzino (Mediterranean seabass), speck (cured ham akin to prosciutto) and bresaola (salty dried beef).
We opened with a selection of salumi—cured meats—which included chewy strips of imported bresaola, as well as sheer circles of mortadella, prosciutto and speck, draped like pink silk scarves on a white plate. The array of meats imported from Italy was a good appetizer for sharing and an opportunity to explore the subtle differences among several classic cold cuts.
The generous appetizer of sausage and peppers arrived with two links of rustically nubbly sweet Italian, plated over a cold round of polenta and smothered with pureed tomatoes and molten roasted red peppers. When a second basket of bread arrived, the impossibly fluffy hunks of airy focaccia glazed with salt stood far above the first batch and served as a perfect sponge to sop up the last sweet traces of the tomato-and-pepper medley.
The power of suggestion—or definition, as was the case—led us to the branzino, which was pan-seared with chanterelles and thin cross-sections of asparagus in a saffron broth. While we could detect no hint of saffron, the light treatment with black pepper and basil, with soft roasted potatoes the size of cherry tomatoes, was a delicate and attractive execution of the tender, sweet fish.
Veal scaloppine in a white wine sauce, topped with julienned artichokes, tangles of thyme and a pert sprig of rosemary was an unexpected and attractive take on the classic dish, though many of the julienned artichoke leaves were too reedy to eat. Instead, we chewed the tough shoots to extract the buttery liquor tinged with citrus and herb, then spit out the rest in an awkward maneuver that left us looking around the table in hopes that no one saw.
Among the sturdiest and most delicious dishes was the orecchiette with fennel and Italian sausage. The generous serving of ear-shaped pasta was coated with a nearly invisible sauce of pureed cauliflower, which contributed a rich texture but had none of the cabbage flavor associated with cauliflower. While our table was extremely enthusiastic about this dish—one diner even said she could envision waking up with a craving for it someday soon—we were struck by the price tag of $21.75.
The same could be said for the risotto with lamb shank, especially given the low-key presentation. A shallow bowl held a pool of creamy rice studded with carrots, red pepper and asparagus, with a single dark stain of stewed lamb running across the diameter. Make no mistake, the pulled lamb had delicious and intense flavor that melted across the tongue, but $25 for a bowl of rice with shredded meat seemed excessive.
We splurged on three $9.75 desserts by pastry chef Teresa Dorazio, who also makes the breads. (She's from Venice—the one in Italy, our server jovially informed us.) We enjoyed the coffee semifreddo, a cool dollop of frothy semi-frozen cream—like melted gelato—slouched under a puff of whipped cream. The chocolate bombe was a euphemism for an individual chocolate cake that was slightly dry. Our favorite confection was the tiramisu, which layered cake, mascarpone, cream and cocoa in a precisely striated tower, but a frosty layer of espresso-soaked sponge left us wondering aloud if it was intended to be served frozen, or if it simply had not thawed thoroughly before plating.
Our foursome had a lovely evening of good food and service in a splendid setting, but still we couldn't help weighing the experience against the price tag. Three starters, four entrées, three desserts and two glasses of wine for $200 before tip felt pricey. While we by no means ordered extravagantly, we could have dined more economically and still enjoyed the august setting and atmosphere. For example, an order of sausage and peppers ($13.75) with a bread basket would make an ample and affordable meal in one of the most unpredictably beautiful rooms in town.
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