I was so elated after a recent meal at The Ivy Inn that I woke my husband when I got home to tell him all about the six delicious courses that chef and owner Angelo Vangelopoulos had served us. My husband fell back to sleep halfway through the second course, but I continued my exaltation anyway. It was, after all, the best food I’ve eaten in Charlottesville in years.
I’ve been to The Ivy Inn before, but don’t think of it as a place to go on a regular basis. I suppose entrées from $22 to $36 qualify as special occasion, but you’d easily spend that much on a couple of small plates elsewhere—and you wouldn’t get a salad and slices of warm house-baked bread with them. The restaurant is out on Old Ivy Road, which is not that far off the beaten track. It doesn’t have a bar scene or a theme. It’s just a family cooking seasonal (and often local) American food and flying way under the radar doing it.
Of course, companions contribute a lot, and sharing a table with Charlotte Shelton (stockbroker by day and Vintage Virginia Apples grower/Albemarle Ciderworks cidermaker by night and weekend) and Gabriele Rausse (Monticello’s assistant director of gardens and grounds by day and winemaker by night and weekend) can’t hurt. There are only about three degrees of separation in Charlottesville (and even fewer in the food and wine world), so Gabriele and Charlotte were talking shop in no time—from how Fuji apples make terrible cider to how yellow-bellied sapsuckers are ruining the apple trees.
The Ivy Inn was where Gabriele first ate after landing in America on April 10, 1976. That was before Angelo and his father, Thomas, a Greek immigrant, purchased the restaurant in 1995. In the five years prior, Angelo had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and worked under great chefs in Washington, D.C., including Roberto Donna. Angelo’s wife, Farrell, oversees the restaurant’s all-American wine list (see Working Pour) and her brother, Penn Webster, is Angelo’s sous chef. Our charming server, Jessica, handled our incessant chatting and excessive glassware with elegance.
All of that was the icing on the cake (or the malted vanilla ice cream and dried cherries over gianduia shortcake, as our luck would have it). The food was exquisite—top quality ingredients shining through Angelo’s meticulous preparations—and we ate every last bite, wetting our whistles with thoughtful, local pairings.
Piquing our appetites was a sweet potato gnoccho with crispy pork belly and a chiffonade of Brussels sprout leaves along with a cream of parsnip soup swathing a brunoise of curried apples and spiced pecans. Small forks and spoons helped us relish every last lick. The bracing acidity of Albermarle Ciderworks’ “Royal Pippin” acted as a foil to the velvety bites.
Next, pork from the Rock Barn starred three ways with rounds of perfectly pink ribeye wrapped in sausage (can I get a hallelujah?) alongside a pork shank raviolo. Gabriele provided the Pinot Grigio for the course in more ways than one (he was the first to plant the grape in Virginia after grafting it from an Oregon bud wood in 1983). His 2010 version had pear and bitter almond on the palate with a creamy finish.
Gabriele was pleasantly surprised when his Nebbiolo 2010 accompanied a pan-seared Scottish salmon over French lentils, spinach, and fennel in a red wine sauce. Gabriele said the Italians would balk at the non-traditional pairing of fish with red wine, but with the earthy lentils and rich salmon, it really worked.
The next course showed Angelo’s whimsy by pairing his favorite sandwich with a beer stein shot glass of Blue Mountain Brewery’s Classic Lager. The sandwich tucked a tender lamb meatball, pickled red onions, microgreens, and tzatziki into a toasted pita. Enrapturing us more than anything were the puffy souffléd potatoes, which looked like ladyfingers and defied my usual disregard for white potatoes.
I squealed and clapped at the arrival of the fifth course: a braised veal shank (osso buco) that came nestled upon olive oil-crushed potatoes with roasted Brussels sprouts and a generous pour of Gabriele’s currant, cedar-filled Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2007. I asked Angelo for marrow spoons, then Gabriele and I started with the marrow.
Somewhere between the pork and the salmon, our conversation turned from annual productions to our astrological signs. As we cleaned the last morsels from our dessert plates and Gabriele sipped espresso (which came with chocolate curls and a biscotto), Angelo poured himself a glass of Gabriele’s cabernet, and joined us at the table. The servers began to leave, warning one another to drive carefully as the night had turned foggy. The place felt like one big, happy, half-Greek family, and we were all a part of it.