Whether you’re craving a delicate ravioli with sautéed local vegetables or hearty, homestyle spaghetti and meatballs just like mom used to make, our city offers plenty of ways to enjoy the ultimate Italian comfort food. Here are seven of our favorites.
Linguine alla carbonara
Tavola, 826 Hinton Ave., 972-9463
Tavola’s chefs have the restaurant’s most popular dish (ordered 30-40 times a night on weekends) “down to a science,” says chef/owner Michael Keaveny. “If you do anything that much you’re gonna get good at it,” he laughs. The dish is made with imported Italian linguine, one whole egg, Olli pancetta, pecorino Romano, black pepper and—different from other renditions—housemade sausage with locally sourced pork, a nod to the carbonara Keaveny experienced in his early days as a dishwasher at a popular Italian restaurant named Carbone’s in his Connecticut hometown. “It was made with sausage and prosciutto, and it was addicting,” he recalls. “I fell in love with it.” Obviously, his own version has plenty of us swooning as well.
Rigatoni al forno
Bella’s, 707 W. Main St., 327-4833
This best-selling dish is straight from owner Valeria Bisenti’s childhood home in Rome. It was created by her mother, who “would make me this dish since I’m a big meat-lover,” says Bisenti’s husband, Douglas Muir, who co-owns the restaurant. “She would add all the meat she had in the kitchen—usually pork and veal—and smother it in cheese.” It is no different at Bella’s, which is named after Bisenti, who is affectionately called “Bella” by her husband. Here, the rigatoni al forno is blended with the house pomodoro sauce, ground veal, ground beef and Italian sausage, then covered with shredded mozzarella and pecorino Romano and baked to homestyle perfection.
Housemade ravioli with braised greens
Orzo, 416 W. Main St., 975-6796
Chef Adam Spaar’s popular homemade ravioli entrée is a showcase of local produce. “We work with a variety of farms,” says Spaar, who lists Down Branch Farm, Sharondale Farm, Pleasant Pasture Farm in Virginia Beach and Michie Market, which features produce grown by area refugees, among his suppliers. The ravioli, handmade and cut in-house almost every day, is made with duck egg yolks to give the pasta a richer flavor. Ricotta is mixed with kale and other greens for the creamy filling, and the ravioli is cooked in a “quick, simple” pan sauce of Spanish olive oil and cream, says Spaar. It’s then topped with heirloom tomatoes and Sharondale’s oyster and shiitake mushrooms and finished with a medley of oregano, lemon, black pepper and Grana Padano cheese.
Vivace, 2244 Ivy Rd., 979-0994
Opened in 1995, Vivace is a Charlottesville classic—as is chef/co- owner Landon Saul’s spicy Clams Oreganata: steamed Virginia clams with housemade sausage, white wine, plum tomatoes and Sicilian oregano over spaghetti. “It’s one of my favorite dishes,” says Saul, who created the dish with inspiration from his time at the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, which is known for its spicy fare. “Calabrian chile is the star of our housemade sausage,” he says. The real secret to the dish though, Saul says, is finishing the pasta in the clam sauce, “so the pasta gets all the brine, all that flavor, from the clams,” he explains. “It’s how the Italians do it.”
The Local, 824 Hinton Ave., 984-9749
“Little clouds,” is how Melissa Close-Hart describes The Local’s gnocchi recipe. And she should know—she created it. This dish is a family collaboration between her husband, The Local’s chef Matthew Hart, who developed the bolognese recipe, and Close-Hart, who perfected the gnocchi after multiple cooking trips to Italy (Close-Hart was formerly chef at Barboursville Vineyard’s Palladio and is opening her own restaurant next year). The gnocchi is lighter than most, “almost like a dumpling,” Hart says, and tossed gently with his traditional bolognese, made “in a long, slow process” with local Buffalo Creek beef and Double H pork, tomato paste, dry white wine and milk. “It’s here to stay,” Close-Hart says. “If Matty took it off the menu people would revolt a little bit.”
Pear and cheese
Basil Mediterranean Bistro, 109 14th St., 977-5700
Who says pasta can’t be adorable? These beggars purses—little bundles of ravioli—are almost too cute to eat. But topped with cremini mushrooms, poached pears, walnuts and basil in a rich Gorgonzola cream sauce, it’s pretty much impossible not to dig in.
Spaghetti with meatballs
Fellini’s #9, 200 Market St., 979-4279
This classic dish is all about “taking the time to do it right,” says Fellini’s chef Tess Vandenburg, who has adjusted both the marinara and meatball recipe in recent years. Her marinara is a little sweeter, she says, and “not too chunky, but not too watery.” The magic is in the meatballs, which are “just a little smaller than a tennis ball,” Vandenburg says, and are made with pork and beef (5 lbs. pork to 10 lbs. beef), as well as Parmesan, oregano, onion, garlic, egg and breadcrumbs. First cooked in a convection oven “to get them nice and brown on the outside,” says Vandenburg, they are finished at a lower temperature in a standard oven, then placed atop a nest of al dente spaghetti and covered with marinara.