Choosing a restaurant at which to eat for our anniversary (number eleven!) was somewhat of a challenge this year. Initially I wanted to go to The Meeting Place, the more casual sister of St. John’s, but as the date got closer I began to add more and more restaurants to the list. Saturday morning there were five restaurants. I had talked to Philip’s sister on Friday and she highly recommended Alleia, then Saturday morning Philip talked to her as well and again she emphasized how wonderful the food was. Why not? We booked a reservation for 6 p.m. and headed to Main Street.
It’s funny, because I was always a little foggy about exactly where Alleia (pronounced a-LEE-a) was located. Turns out, I drive past it every Wednesday as I head to the farmers market. It’s on Main, right after you turn from Market, in the building right before The Soho. A large metal sculpture serves as something of a landmark. The huge wood door with the large metal ring handle is quite impressive. We walked in and were quickly seated by a hostess who told us that we did not look old enough to have been married eleven years (stop it! You flatter.). We were indeed hardly more than children when we wed, but it has worked out well for us!
We were seated at a booth, a very private booth with walls on three sides. While we were perusing the menu, we took in the ambiance….slightly dimly lit, but not dark (although I do need to apologize for the poor lighting of the photos….nicer restaurants rarely have lighting conducive to great photography), with beautiful worn looking walls. We were seated near a large lighting feature of candles with wax forming a mantel of sorts as well as a base on the floor; very unique and interesting. Also interesting was the heavy wool blanket decorating the wall; light grey plaid, it looked and felt like a horse blanket. The kitchen was open, and I enjoyed watching the guys work (although I wished that I could stand at the counter and really watch them work….but I suppose I would had missed out on my anniversary meal with my husband then, wouldn’t I?
The menu at Alleia is divided into six parts: antipasti (appetizers), insalate (salad), primi (first courses-all pasta dishes), secondi (main courses-meat-based entrées), pizzas, and contorni (side dishes). There was also a specials list, with one or two specials for each menu section, and a Vino (wine) menu. We had a difficult time choosing our antipasti…the bruschettas (one with ricotta and honey, the other with cannellini beans and roasted peppers) sounded wonderful, and I was very interested in the arancini (basically breaded and fried rice balls) with mozzarella and meat sauce…but the dates wrapped in Benton’s bacon with a balsamic and olive oil drizzle sounded wonderful, and that is what we finally decided to order. It arrived about the same time as our bread, a portion of a fresh Italian loaf (made in-house) with lots of olive oil and garlic on top. We were not disappointed in our choice. Just the scent from the dates was enough to send us over the edge….smoky and sweet. Both the dates and the bacon were tender enough to cut through easily, and the savory/sweet combination was perfect. Our server, Arturo, even encouraged us to sop the olive oil and vinegar with our bread.
The Bob Jones salad (with Bob Jones lettuce, gorgonzola, and strawberries), sounded lovely, as did the Caesar salad with romaine lettuce and shaved grana padano cheese, but I could not resist the insalate special for the day, a caprese salad. They divided the salad between two plates for us; it was a combination of sliced heirloom tomatoes and wedged tomatoes, with a chunk of mozzarella, a basil chiffonade, and again, a balsamic and olive oil drizzle. Delicious. The tomatoes were in that perfectly ripe stage, so juicy and drippy, and the cheese was fresh and amazing. Again, I sopped up the wonderful juices with the bread. Perfect. I kept waxing on and on about how the most amazing food is usually the most simple. Philip is surely a patient man to listen to all this food jargon all the time….but then again, he certainly has benefitted from it over the years.
I was so tempted to order a pizza. All of the topping combinations sounded impressive (especially proscuitto, arugula, and smoked mozzarella), and they are all neopolitan-style pizzas (thin, crispy….perfect) cooked in a 750 degree wood-fired oven. Shut your mouth, Arturo. However, I guess my desire to try the handmade pasta was stronger, so I asked Arturo to make a recommendation between the ricotta ravioli with zucchini and cremini mushrooms and the angel hair pasta with Gulf shrimp and cherry tomatoes. Rather than really make a “recommendation”, he gave me a very detailed description of each dish. Finally, I decided on the ravioli. Filled with ricotta lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, the ravioli is served in an herbed butter and white wine sauce with quartered cremini (baby portobello) mushrooms, very thinly sliced (almost shaved) zucchini, and red and yellow tomatoes with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. My. Word. This was, without question, the best ravioli I had ever had. Ever. The sauce was perfectly seasoned, the pasta so tender and the ricotta so fresh tasting. Amazing.
While the secondi menu had a variety of tempting options, like Maple Leaf Farm duck breast and the secondi special pork osso buco (which I briefly considered before deciding I must order pasta) Philip took one look and knew immediately what he would order: wood-fired pork shoulder with grilled peaches. All of the dishes on the secondi menu are served with perfectly roasted red potatoes and red cabbage. First of all, pork shoulder is not something that you often see on a menu at an upscale restaurant, so I was very interested to see the execution. It was served in a cohesive chunk (sorry, that word is so unappetizing, but I couldn’t think of a better one!) but was amazingly tender. Philip was able to simply use his fork to pull bites of meat from it. He definitely had one of those eyes-rolling-into-your-head moments when he first took a bite of it…the tenderness, the smoky flavor from the wood-fired oven, the seasoning…everything worked together fabulously. The red potatoes were also delicious, perfectly browned and with a wonderful grilled flavor. I didn’t taste the cabbage, but Philip said it was very good. The peaches were delicious, with a perfect grilled flavor. I love grilled peaches. We both could have finished our entrees, but we needed to save room for dessert, so Arturo boxed up our leftovers (and our bread!) for us.
We were sincerely hoping for the dessert special, summer fruit cobbler with basil gelato (!), but apparently we should have made our reservation for when they opened at 5 p.m. rather than waiting until 6. They were all out by the time we ordered! The dessert menu consisted of a handful of specialty desserts (tiramisu, panna cotta, and a flourless chocolate cake) and several flavors of gelato (Italian ice cream, more dense with less air than American ice cream). We decided to order the flourless chocolate cake, served with strawberries, fresh whipped cream, and cinnamon gelato, made with cinnamon sticks, not packaged ground cinnamon. The cake was dark, rich, dense….the whipped cream light, barely sweetened, and the gelato had a wonderful texture with a strong cinnamon flavor. By the way….I will be making basil gelato soon. I have to, it’s a must.
Alleia is owned by Daniel Lindley, the renowned chef who also owns St. John’s and The Meeting Place (he was nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2009, 2010, and 2012). This is certainly another hit for Lindley….amazing, simple, perfect food, much of it sourced locally. Basically everything that can be purchased locally, is, and other ingredients are imported from Italy, adding to the authenticity. Let me say…it was not inexpensive. Certainly this is a special occasion dining spot, but worth saving up for. Besides, think of all of the local business you support when you dine here-not just Alleia, but all of the local farms and producers from which they obtain ingredients. The atmosphere was beautiful, and the execution of service and cuisine spot on.