Taste of Downtown is going on this week in Harrisonburg. It’s a great thing, and it’s also a bit like Valentine’s Day, in the sense that it makes a big limited-time-only deal about something that you really should be doing all the time (be it eating downtown or showing people you love that you love them). So by all means, go taste downtown this week with reckless abandon, make merry, tip your waitstaff like crazy, and go back again and again and again. In the meantime, Old South High will be marching to a different tasting beat.
This one goes out to the old Luigi’s, sorely missed, the scene of my first date with the lady who’s now my wife, a local counter-culture counterweight to the Little Grill, subject of many an amusing story about after-hours hijinx, and since replaced by Napoli Ristorante Italiano, a restaurant of considerably lower profile that I’ve never once heard anyone discuss.
In the interest of figuring out just if and how Napoli R.I. fills Luigi’s shoes, Old South High commissioned a visit by local gourmand Jon Styer. On the way, Styer outlined his critical approach to inexpensive Italian food, which primarily revolves around the degree to which food prep occurs in-house – the more the better. Also along to assess Napoli R.I. was Rachel Jenner, the aforementioned wife, whose major wish was to be served baskets of bread dripping with garlic butter, and me, hoping only to make a significant and lasting contribution to Harrisonburg’s body of food journalism.
And indeed, a basket of bread (albeit a little too crusty and not drippy enough for Rachel’s taste) arrived with the salads, which earned gentle praise from Styer for going above and beyond the standard iceberg base layer with bits of romaine and purple cabbage. He also took an imperfectly chopped bit of cabbage as indication that the cabbage chopping happened on Napoli R.I. premises, and things were off to a good start.
Next the entrees: some sort of chicken thing for Styer (I think it was chicken “cachaca” or “calicotorrey” or “cocacola” or something), another sort of chicken thing for Rachel (pretty sure this was the chicken “marsala”) and good old manicotti for yours truly, whose vegetarian ideals severely constrained the options, but I dug my own hole there and only offer this as a minor complaint.
Anyhow, Styer began to assess his chicken calciumchloride before even taking a bite. The presentation was “pretty standard … what you’d expect from cheap Italian food.”
But the rosemary and fennel and other herbs he tasted in the sauce resulted in a pretty flavorful combination, and the noodles were not overcooked – a consistent gripe of his with regard to cheap Italian food – and the dish was salted in an appropriate manner, and the olives were not fantastic but not as bad as he’d feared they could be. The chicken was maybe a bit tough; if he’d been calling the shots, he would have seared it and chopped it up into bits, probably.
Rachel seemed to give the marsala a passing grade, and was pleased with the fact that she had enough for lunch tomorrow. Styer deemed the marsala sauce sufficiently “earthy” and “funky” and had enough chicken chianti left over for lunch as well.
The atmosphere was a far cry from Luigi’s, but that’s just not part of Napoli R.I.’s shtick, and all in all, it seems that faint praise is in store for the place.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Styer. “I was hoping to be amazed, but who isn’t?”