Perfect pairings: Finding the right combination of food, drinks, and personalities during Restaurant Week



The Italianos

Caffe Bocce and Al Dente Ristorante 

There are fine lines between mysterious and standoffish, eccentric and bizarre. These two Italian spots walk those lines carefully.

Bocce is newer but an old soul. Its head chef, Christopher Long, avoids the spotlight. Al Dente has been around for 10 years, but because Chef/Owner Karim Sellam is Moroccan, as well as the quirky way the dining room is served out of the same kitchen as its sister restaurant Al Hamraa, its authenticity remains a question mark for many.

Ironically—in the Alanis Morissette kind of way—Al Dente positions itself as the more traditional of the two Italian restaurants. Sellam spent 10 years cooking in Italy before coming to the States, and he’s always felt there’s a lack of true Italian cuisine in this country. Long said he tries to put a contemporary twist on “rustic Italian cooking.” That means you’ll find shiitake mushrooms in Long’s favorite dish on the menu, the Mare e Monte, an otherwise Old-World take on linguine with shrimp.

Shrimp and polenta with olive oil, white wine, tomatoes, and garlic from Al Dente. Photo: Elli Williams

“The shrimp has to be caramelized just right, followed by the white wine deglazing to get that perfect fish flavor,” Long said in an e-mail. “The shiitake mushrooms, plum tomatoes, and garlic add so many other layers.” Layering is important in the dining experience too, he said, and Caffe Bocce tries to bring each element—“the rhythm of the menu, wait staff service, background music”—together in such a way that “a wonderful culinary experience” develops without the customer even knowing why.

As true to Italian traditions as he strives to be, Sellam says it’s important to understand the regionalism of ingredients around the world. There will always be a slight difference in the Italian food cooked here compared to what’s produced on the Mediterranean because the basil, for example, doesn’t grow the same way here. Heck, even the water is different, he said.

Sellam has cooked all over Italy, so he tries to share a bit of what he’s learned from both the north, where cream sauces are more common, and the south, where you’ll find more tomato-based sauces.

“If you follow everyone, you will start to use butter and cream in everything,” he said. “I like onions and garlic. Tomatoes too. You can braise anything in those and it will be good.”

Scottish salmon, curried cauliflower, golden raisin relish, turmeric root, and coconut pesto from Fossett’s. Photo: Elli Williams

The Seafoodies

Shadwells and Fossett’s 

One phrase is bound to come up when you talk to the chefs at both of these restaurants: Chesapeake Bay. Shadwells, a newcomer on Pantops, wants to do seafood like no one else in Charlottesville. It’s a niche Matt Kossin, who came up with the concept for the restaurant, feels has been underrepresented.

“Our main thing that we really wanted was to localize, so we specialize in regionally inspired cuisine,” Kossin said. “The Chesapeake Bay and the Rappahannock, for Rappahannock oysters, is really what we are concentrating on.”

Keswick’s Fossett’s is, by contrast, an established standard. But it’s going through changes. With new executive chef Aaron Cross at the helm, the restaurant is still looking to find its identity. One of the things Cross thinks he can do as well as anyone is seafood.

It’s easy to believe him. A technique-driven chef, Cross answers the question of his favorite ingredient by naming an apparatus: the pressure cooker. When you’re cooking food on a stovetop and smelling all those aromas leaving the pot, he says, that’s flavor a pressure cooker traps inside and delivers on the plate. Cross admits he’s still learning new ways to use the equipment, but Fossett’s sunflower seed risotto certainly highlights what it can do.

“When you cook seeds or nuts in a pressure cooker, something amazing happens,” Cross said. “They get this silky texture. It is really outstanding and different and goes great with the speckled trout we are serving.”

All of which is not to say either Fossett’s or Shadwells is content to leave it at seafood. Cross, who’s been thrust into a role of overseeing all the food at Keswick, says he’s still in the process of feeling out what his guests most want to eat when they visit the hotel and restaurants. Kossin said his favorite ingredient to work with is fresh produce, and he points to a pork dish as the best example of what the restaurant has to offer.

“We stuff the chop with goat cheese and roasted red peppers, serve it over fingerling potatoes, and top it with red and green local apples sliced thin,” he said. “It’s a gorgeous dish and great tasting.”

Parmesan encrusted sea scallops with sauteed spinach, bacon, and lemon cream sauce. Photo: Matthew Kossin