Charlottesville food is hot. In the last year alone, our area’s food has won praise from national media outlets dozens of times, culminating with a recent nod in Wine Enthusiast as one of “America’s five new foodie cities.”
For one of our restaurants, though, national attention is nothing new. Since opening in 2000 at Barboursville Vineyards, Palladio Restaurant has garnered more outside acclaim than any area restaurant. Four times the James Beard Foundation has named Palladio Chef Melissa Close-Hart a semi-finalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic. Each year, nationally prominent chefs travel to Palladio for guest appearances. And next year, the Palladio team will make its fifth appearance at the James Beard House, an honor many chefs and restaurant owners dream of achieving just once.
Is Palladio worthy of all this attention? In a word, yes.
Just ask Washington, D.C. chef Roberto Donna. He should know. No stranger to acclaim, Esquire Magazine’s 2012 national Chef of the Year has won James Beard awards, cooked with Julia Child, and competed on Iron Chef. Now chef of D.C.’s Al Dente, Donna is most famous for his much-missed Galileo restaurant, which many called the best Italian restaurant in America.
So, what does one of the country’s most acclaimed Italian chefs think of our little town’s most acclaimed Italian restaurant? He loves it, as I learned when he and his wife, Nancy Sabbagh, joined me for a feast there last month. A friend of Close-Hart and Barboursville winemaker Luca Paschina, Donna has cooked as a guest chef at Palladio, but never had the pleasure of sitting down for a meal. It’s hard to imagine better company for a leisurely Italian lunch than Donna and Sabbagh.
A platter of house-made charcuterie impressed Donna right from the start. Palladio Sous Chef Spencer Crawford is known for making what a lot of chefs consider the best charcuterie in the area, and I was not about to argue. Neither was Donna, who swooned over the salamis and cured hams. “Incredibly well done,” said Donna. “Full of the right flavor.”
My antipasto was paper-thin grilled zucchini wrapped around medallions of house made mozzarella, with cherry tomato confit, baby arugula, basil, and balsamic vinegar.
“Tastes like summer,” I offered. Donna tasted and agreed. “Summery” was also how Donna described the fresh ricotta ravioli with golden raisins, pine nuts, parmigiano-reggiano, and an arugula pesto brightened with orange zest. The seasonality of the dishes, Close-Hart later explained, was no accident, as she changes the menu throughout the year to showcase the best of the area’s produce.
While “cloudlike” has become a cliché when it comes to describing properly made gnocchi, it fits Close-Hart’s effort—potato pasta light as air, tossed with grilled baby octopus, zucchini, onions, rosemary, and just enough salty pancetta.
When Donna offered me some of his housemade pappardelle with braised goat, I certainly wasn’t about to turn it down. The least summery of the dishes, it was by no means the least tasty. The goat is raised on Barboursville’s estate and braised with white wine, then brightened with charred tomatoes and pecorino. It’s no easy feat to impress one of the nation’s most renowned pasta makers, but with the three pastas we enjoyed, Close-Hart sure did.
“All the pasta has just the right amount of sauce that does not overpower the flavor of the pasta,” Donna said.
Donna also shared his grilled hanger steak, served rare, with roasted baby potatoes, radishes, baby arugula, and horseradish aioli. I returned the favor by sharing my own secondi piatti, a delicate tart of summer squash and fresh herbs, with a puree of roasted red peppers and goat cheese. Neither of us could decide which we liked better.
Dolci were no let down, the highlight being fritters of almonds and local peaches, served with peach cider ice cream and peach caramel. Both Close-Hart and Paschina call it their favorite Palladio dessert. Mine too. In cooler seasons, the same fritters are served with apples instead of peaches.
After the meal, Donna, a native of Piedmont, Italy gave Close-Hart’s food what may be the highest compliment an Italian chef can give.
“Her cuisine is very Italian,” said the chef who speaks with a thick accent and tends to drift between English and Italian mid-sentence. “It’s the simplicity of recipes and the painstaking willingness to keep looking for the freshest ingredients.”
But, said Donna, food alone cannot explain all of the acclaim Palladio has enjoyed for more than a decade. Donna cited the great service from a loyal, professional staff, and perhaps most importantly, the location.
“What better than a winery and what better than Barboursville?” asked Donna.
It’s almost as if he were in Piedmont. Well, I guess he was.