A few summers ago, on the last afternoon of a somewhat exhausting family vacation to Europe with our young kids, I slipped through a tourist-jammed square near Florence’s Ponte Vecchio into a smaller, almost abandoned piazza just steps away. This is where I found Le Volpi e l’Uva, an enoteca whose mellow vibes belied a revelatory wine selection and subtly exquisite cuisine. For more than two hours, I did what I’d been wanting to do for weeks: just chill out, casually nibbling on dish after dish as an extremely knowledgeable server shared ever more enlightening sips, her genuine excitement growing with each delivered glass.
A few weeks ago, that comfortable combination of quenched curiosity and corporal contentment came over me again, but this time in the form of vermouth-spiked Sardinian spritzes and scallop crudo in a lardo vinaigrette. I wasn’t in Italy this time, but a half block off of State Street, sitting in the parklet of Aperitivo on West Haley, where co-owner/sommelier Andrea Girardello tends to fascinating drinks while co-owner/chef Brian Dodero creates colorful, delicately delicious food.
It was my second time there since they’d fully reopened in April, following a brief six-week debut from their October opening until the December lockdown. I first wrote about Aperitivo back in January, when the duo launched a weekly pasta club to transport their pairings of unique Italian wines and traditional cuisine into your home, with an easy DIY element. That experience, which still continues today (order on Sunday; pickup on Tuesday), was just a tease. I couldn’t wait to properly indulge inside the small space they’d taken over in March 2020, which was formerly Mosto Crudo and the short-lived Champagne Room.
Credit: Daniel Dreifuss
That finally happened in early May, when I took a seat near the back, next to the cramped, open-air kitchen where Dodero cooks without many of the kitchen appliances found in most restaurants. As Girardello brought out a series of spritzes and other lower-alcohol cocktails — his spins on the bitter Negroni Sbagliato, a sake-based margarita, and the coffee-based Siciliano — Dodero delighted all the senses through his food.
The crescent-shaped crudo dish — I don’t even recall the fish, but it doesn’t matter — featured pickled mango, fermented chiles, yuzu aioli, charred cucumber, leek ash, lime oil, and smoked sea salt. “It’s like a street mango you can find in Mexico,” explained Dodero.
Next came a circular big-eye tuna assemblage, with sashimi-grade pieces surrounding a chopped-flesh center, decorated with capers, basil, roasted tomato aioli, microplaned Marcona almond, and fried taro root. I felt like I needed a daintier instrument than a fork to dive in — a pearl caviar spoon, perhaps? — but I persevered, uncovering expertly layered elements that ran from crunchy and briny to funky and fresh.
Then we moved into more savory fare, namely the porchetta bruschetta, served on bread made next door at Oat Bakery. Roasted for 20 hours in a milieu of fennel, orange zest, rosemary, Calabrian chile, herbs, and black pepper and served thinly sliced with arugula and parmigiano, it was a meaty bite and would easily serve as a quick dinner all alone.
So would the pasta dish called Nido d’Uccello di Marea, a “seabird’s nest” of firm, ramen-esque noodles that surrounded a pool of buttery, bacon-y sauce, a bright-yellow quail egg floating in the middle. “Holy f@#*!” I wrote in my notes, amazed that it could be so rich yet not cloying, thanks to pea tendrils providing a refreshingly green counterpoint. “After a day of eating,” I scribbled in an actual sentence, a rarity in my notebooks, “to find a dish that resonates in many ways is a treat.”
The same page describes the dessert that followed as “ridiculous”: a ball of hazelnut gelato with a chocolate center that was rolled in more hazelnuts and meringue, then topped with espresso — an affogato on amphetamines. Frozen treats don’t do well as leftovers, I rationalized until the last slurp.
Many of these dishes are no longer on the menu, as it evolves seasonally, especially the crudo and pasta options. The same can be said for the parade of wines that Girardello poured me, from pecorino grown in Umbria and Tuscan chardonnay to sangiovese from Montepulciano and dolcetto from Dogliani.
“I don’t want to have the typical wine list, where you have a pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay and pinot noir, like most of the bars in town,” said Girardello, who works with 10 importers. “We are trying to have the true experience of Italy — small producers, mainly organic. I just try to push the boundaries and make it a true Italian experience.”
Raised in Milan, Girardello’s first taste of wine came from a great-uncle who shared some stuff he’d made from the hills of Liguria. His hospitality career took Girardello to London, New England, and Florida before landing at the Biltmore a dozen years ago.
That’s where he met Dodero, a Santa Barbara native who was trained in Florence and cooked professionally in Italy, New York City, and Providence, Rhode Island, before coming home. Dodero rose to relative fame here back in 2014 due to his role as top chef at The Pasta Shoppe, one of the original tenants of the Santa Barbara Public Market. Though his pastas were brilliant, the restaurant didn’t last long, so he went back to the Biltmore.
The Aperitivo concept, it turns out, is modeled on what I’d experienced that dreamy afternoon in Florence. “Throughout Italy, you’re gonna find places to go and meet up with friends after work, to enjoy a glass of wine, but it always revolves around food as well,” said Dodero. “You’ll see a big spread on the bar countertop of interesting small bites. It’s like a stepping stone to your evening.”
And that’s what my wife and I did during my last visit, eating a quick crudo and guzzling custom spritzes before hitting our dinner reservations elsewhere. We should have stayed all night.
7 W. Haley St.; (805) 869-2937; aperitivosb.com
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