During the past week I found myself eating more than my normal share of Italian food. A family birthday dinner at Brio Tuscan Grill, a work lunch at Maggiano's, take-out for my wife and me from 8A«. And several visits to Mediterraneo, South Side's newest venture from the famiglia LoPresti. My several years in Rome and as a groupie of Mario Batali's temples to la cucina Italiana have provided me with not only a full belly on many occasions but also a wealth of experience with the cuisine.
Richmond is lucky to have solid players in the Italian arena: Mamma 'Zu, Edo's Squid, La Grotta, Amici and Enoteca Sogno. And the LoPresti family has delighted Richmonders with family favorites Mary Angela's, Piccola Italy, Maldini's and Pronto Pizzeria. Now the family's breaking new ground with a foray into finer dining.
Mediterraneo Cuisine is nestled into a new strip mall at the corner of Robious Road and Winterfield, near the Chesterfield-Powhatan border and Route 288, and joining the retail satellites orbiting the growing communities nearby. You forget the setting upon entering the sleek, sophisticated new space, a cross between old-world traditions and the new-world homogeneity of a Pottery Barn catalog.
Starters tend toward seafood, with three preparations of mussels, several fish dishes and the ever-popular calamari fritti. This rendition is well prepared — lightly battered and gently fried with tangy marinara on the side. A range of salads and brick-oven pizzas also satisfy without standing out.
Overall, the dinner menu is traditional with no real surprises. All pastas are made in-house and sauces are familiar and well-executed — the pesto over pillows of ricotta gnocchi is like a fresh breath of summer on a cold winter night; the alfredo is a notch above some of the cloyingly creamy renditions in other establishments.
The risotto of the day, served with shrimp gamberi, lacks the creaminess a proper risotto is afforded from a slow stir. The veal saltimbocca, which literally means “jump in the mouth” in Italian, almost lives up to its promise with its earthy combination of veal, prosciutto, white wine and sage. Mediterraneo's version takes it one step too far, however, rolling it up and stuffing it with mozzarella cheese, distracting from the heroic flavors. In this instance, I don't believe that cheese makes it better.
Desserts include an adequately creamy and light tiramisu (literally “pick me up”), but I prefer one that includes a bit more coffee and liqueur to cut the sweetness of the mascarpone. A hazelnut gelato was outstanding — one of the best I've had.
On a return trip for lunch on a Friday afternoon I enter a nearly empty restaurant, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of my previous visit on a Friday night. It's only 15 minutes from the office parks at West Creek, but the corporate crowd apparently hasn't discovered the place yet.
Our server brings a basket of bread, which was noticeably absent at dinner, that includes squares of foccacia and slices of Italian bread that is better toasted as the base for bruschetta; served on its own it's dry.
The lunch menu includes a wide range of paninis, a few additional pizza choices and several pastas and salads. An appetizer bruschetta includes a portobella and caramelized onion topping that is bland and cold. The tomato version is much better, with olive oil and garlic.
The tuna carpaccio is a daily special and a major disappointment. The thin slices of raw tuna are cold enough to curl my toes. I understand that frozen tuna is easier to slice, but serving it that way is like delivering a fine wine without decanting it. Any subtleties of the tuna's flavor are obscured by the chill.
But lunch is salvaged by another special — a wonderful leek and scallop ravioli. This perfectly cooked pasta is topped by a cava cream sauce that's exquisite, complex and sparingly applied. I wish more of the dishes aspired to this level of creativity.
While Mediterraneo excels in some of its traditional pasta and pizza offerings, it falls short when it ventures too far into fine dining. And that may be a hard sell with a menu that's more expensive than most in its class. There are glimpses of originality that perhaps foreshadow a different future, but for now diners will have to be sated with traditional Italian food at contemporary Italian food prices. S
3730 Winterfield Road
Lunch daily: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Bar and light fare: 2-5 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday: 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 5-11 p.m.