Ristorante Al Dente abandons fine dining, rolls out new pasta café menu

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Karim Sellam revamped the Ristorante Al Dente space, turning it into a casual pick-your-pasta lunch and dinner spot.  Photo: Elli Williams Karim Sellam revamped the Ristorante Al Dente space, turning it into a casual pick-your-pasta lunch and dinner spot. Photo: Elli Williams

Pick your pasta, pick your sauce. It’s a simple concept, and one that Morocco native Karim Sellam hopes will bring more life to his Venetian-inspired restaurant in the Ix building. Introducing Al Dente Pasta Café, a classic Italian restaurant that’s open for lunch, dinner, coffee breaks, and everything in between.

Ristorante Al Dente, which Sellam originally opened on the Downtown Mall in 2003, started out as an upscale dining spot, with white linens, votives, and an extensive menu. The concept remained the same after he relocated to Ix in 2008, but after serving up elaborate, authentic Italian dishes for more than a decade, it’s time for something different. 

“Fine dining, especially being authentic, is a challenge in a small town like Charlottesville,” Sellam said.

Although the restaurant had a loyal group of regulars, moving from the hustle and bustle of the Mall to the more remote location made it even more difficult to sustain the upscale model, and for years it felt like Ix might as well have been in Siberia. But now, as the 17-acre historic warehouse district is developing, attracting more retailers and an influx of local artists to the art park blooming on the property, Sellam decided it was time for something more approachable and affordable.

The menu, which Sellam is in the process of transcribing onto the newly-installed black chalkboards above the bar, is about as simple as it gets: 14 pasta varieties (including a gluten-free option), 14 different sauces, plus a smattering of meat and vegetable add-ins. If spaghetti or gnocchi doesn’t strike your fancy, there’s also a selection of salads and panini sandwiches. A children’s menu features kid-friendly pasta dishes, and freshly-brewed coffee and individually-wrapped snacks like granola bars and snack cakes are available all day.

Transforming the upscale restaurant into a more casual space, with a long communal table, new light fixtures, and brightly-colored Spanish paintings on the wall was a gradual process. Al Dente is closed on Sundays and Mondays, so when he wasn’t next door managing and cooking in his Moroccan restaurant Al Hamraa, Sellam was hauling furniture in and out, installing chalkboard paint, and fine-tuning the menu.

Working seven days a week has always been the norm for him, Sellam said, so buckling down on his days off didn’t faze him, especially since it meant Al Dente didn’t have to close during the renovations.

“I’ve always been that way,” he said with a shrug.

So, how did a Morocco native find himself serving up Italian food in Charlottesville? Sellam started out cooking traditional dishes from his home country, which he described as rich, complex, spice-heavy, and influenced by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines.

He spent a decade in Italy, cooking and managing kitchens in some of the most prestigious, upscale restaurants in Piazza San Marco, the public square of Venice where elaborate, multi-course meals can run upwards of $5,000. Then he moved to the United States in 2002 with his now-former wife. 

“When I went to Italy, I found Italian foods really simple. It’s just based on simple ingredients, not like Moroccan cuisine,” Sellam said. “You can learn it quick. It’s like language—if you start from a hard language, other languages are easy. If you start with an easy language, other languages are hard.”

Because Italian cooking is simple to begin with, the change from fine to casual dining hasn’t been much of a transition.

“It’s still the same quality of pasta and sauces,” Sellam said. He noted that every sauce on the menu is made from a classic Italian recipe, with the exception of Alfredo, which is a much heavier, Americanized version of a classic cream sauce, and would never be found on a menu in Italy.

Even the bar has been simplified. Sellam decorated it with a colorful display of cookbooks he’s received as gifts, and pared down the beverage selections, eliminating the full bar with spirits and cocktails and serving only beer and wine. 

“When it comes to pasta, it should be wine,” he said. “Always simple.”

Ristorante Al Dente officially became Al Dente Pasta Café last Tuesday, and it’s open for business 11:30am-9pm Tuesday-Saturday. The restaurant’s original menu, with items like black squid ink risotto and veal piccatine, is no longer available, but a little birdie told us that regulars just might be able to get their hands on old favorites if they catch the chef at the right time.

Mix and match

At Al Dente Pasta Café, choose from more than a dozen types of pastas and sauces for your perfect, personalized Italian combination.

Pastas Penne, linguine, spaghetti, fusilli, farfalle, fettuccine, gluten-free penne, sweet potato gnocchi, carrot gnocchi, black squid ink gnocchi, arugula and spinach gnocchi, mushroom-filled crepes, butternut squash crepes, cheese ravioli 

Sauces Marinara, arrabbiata, Alfredo, boscaiola, mare e monte, primavera, puttanesca, amatriciana, Bolognese, polpette, vodka, frutti de mare 

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