May 1st, 2013
Music critic Alex Ross once wrote that Vivaldi’s concertos “follow a seemingly predictable formula, but nothing turns out quite as expected; melodies jump from key to key, slip into the minor mode, stop short, go on longer than usual, break into fragments.”
Those pieces, Ross says, brought a vital narrative technique to instrumental music, one rich in the same sort of detail, nuance and cliff-hanging drama listeners loved in Vivaldi’s operas.
A meal at Porcini almost certainly won’t involve cliffhanging drama — you can be pretty sure of a happy ending.
But Porcini, founded by Tim Coury more than 20 years ago, is one of those special restaurants that’s capable of turning a meal into a spellbinding series of events that’s as absorbing, surprising and delightful as an operatic narrative.
And what a stage for such a meal: brick columns, tile floors and stucco walls define a dark dramatic dining area that’s punctuated by pools of light that bathe each table in its own golden column. You can read your menu and see the food — but each table feels like a place apart.
The service standard is extraordinarily high. General manager Jim Murphy’s front-of-house crew is attentive, engaged and expert in every part of the menu and beverage program.
These folks are creative as well. Give them leave, and they’ll find you the perfect glass of wine to go with your entree, build you a custom cocktail based on your tastes, or concoct a creamy dessert drink on a whim.
Executive chef John Plymale and crew approach Northern Italian cuisine with the seemingly casual virtuosity that a violinist in Vivaldi’s time (or ours, for that matter) would call sprezzatura.
Everything they put on a plate looks as if it had been created in that very moment by a master of improvisation.
The kitchen might send you something as simple as a criss-cross stack of artichoke hearts, fried in batter as light as a veil, accompanied by a garlicky remoulade and fresh lemons that tease your palate to attention ($11); that dish alone, said my friend Cathy, and a glass of pinot grigio, is reason enough to justify a stop at the Porcini bar.
But even the more elaborate entrees — like grilled lamb chops sauced in a rosemary-Madeira sauce with a risotto made of caramelized onions and wild mushrooms ($36) or a thick beef filet in a black pepper crust with tender gnocchi and perfectly cooked spears of asparagus ($34) have an easy, pomp-free grace — and lively flavors that hold your attention to the last bite.
The menu is arranged along classical lines: antipasto, insalata, pasta, pranzo. But there might as well be a section called Seafood Dilemma.
Choosing between, say linguini gamberi Palermo (a colorful tangle of pasta and grilled shrimp with bold touches of olive, roasted peppers, roasted garlic, basil, pine and sun-dried tomato, $21), or perhaps a nightly special like grilled halibut with luxurious wild mushroom ravioli, or grilled salmon glazed with honey and blood orange, served on a bed of Tuscan beans with pancetta and sauteed spinach ($25).
Meat dishes include veal scallopini with parsleyed fingerling potatoes ($22) and the wintry comfort of a grilled pork chop with roasted butternut and sage bread pudding ($26). And pastas include the light, lively flavors of angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes, spinach, fresh basil and more ($17).
But if it’s simple pleasures you crave, the Caesar salad ($8) is true to the classic concept.
And there are a handful of masterful pizzas, including the Giampaolo ($14), named after designer Giampaolo Bianconcini, who has designed some of Louisville’s most distinctive restaurants (including Porcini).
His namesake pizza is a zippy mix of fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, banana peppers, mozzarella, feta and more, with a pesto tomato sauce.
As for desserts, there are plenty of choices, but I offer a single word of advice: frulatto di zucca e cioccalato. OK, so technically that’s five words of advice. What it stands for is a creamy blend of ingredients that include, among others, chocolate fudge and dark chocolate gelato.
Photo by Frankie Steele
Copyright 2013, The Courier-Journal