Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

An Italian Vision

At Sprezza, get the burger, the focaccia and the house-made pasta – and sit at the bar.

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Two perspectives, one restaurant

Sprezza started its beloved, pop-up residency in March 2021 and took over a brick-and-mortar space at 111 Virginia St. (the former Morton's Steakhouse) in December of last year. We’ve asked two well-known, local food lovers for their takes on the restaurant. But first, a little about them.

James Ford, the RVA-based foodie behind Just_Something_I_Ate, fell in love with food around age 6 when his grandma pulled him into the kitchen to help her bake the prized rolls for sale at her former restaurant, the Paradise Inn. Food was a love language cherished by both sides of his family. Helping cook Sunday dinners in churches and for the family later transformed into a successful catering business (Fjords) that provided food for proms, weddings, and events of all sizes. While studying architecture at Hampton University, Ford was able to travel internationally and experience different cuisines from France, Spain, and, many parts of Africa, which laid the groundwork for his master’s thesis: a conversation around Soul food and African-American architecture. Ford and his family were able to share their love language and Sunday dinner traditions through Sista’s Café, a memorial to his grandmother, Sista Rozelle. Since closing that restaurant, he has continued to follow his love of food and design by working for a local architecture firm (PSH+) and celebrating all the food this area has to offer on Instagram @Just_Something_I_Ate.

The second writer is Robey Martin, one of Virginia's food personalities with over 15 years of experience in food journalism. She is part of the food team at WTVR CBS 6, as well as a food reviewer for The Virginian-Pilot; she also writes about dining and drinking at multiple other publications both locally and nationally (side note: Robey has been a food reviewer at Style Weekly since 2008.) You can follow her at @callmerobey on Instagram. Outside of work, she is the co-founder of the Holli Fund, a local nonprofit supporting food industry workers in crisis. You can listen to Martin talk Virginia food and drink on WTVR CBS 6's "Eat It, Virginia" every other Monday. She vehemently believes French fries should be hot and crispy, no amount of tomatoes is too many in the summer, and gin martinis only.

Orecchiette Salsiccia e Rapini (sausage, rapini, garlic). - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Orecchiette Salsiccia e Rapini (sausage, rapini, garlic).

James Ford: During the gray area of the pandemic, when people were looking to gather and eat outside or pick up a meal, the Sprezza pop-up quickly became a sought-out affair. Angela Petruzzelli brought us Italian comfort fare when we needed it the most – and it was truly food for the soul.

Sprezza became a new and exciting bite throughout the city, incubating a loyal following. The pop-ups satisfied happy hour regulars’ after-work urge to snack on small plates, accompanied by full-bodied regional wines from now-shuttered Broken Tulip. Whispers of their Lasagna Bolognese made with béchamel roux of fat, milk, and a hit of nutmeg were held close like a secret, in hopes of taking one home. Gathering momentum into the spring of 2022, pop-up after pop-up, the buzz eventually led to them opening in the old Morton’s location downtown in December of last year.

Robey Martin: Paying homage to a traditional family recipe is difficult. Capturing the memory, environment, techniques and uniqueness of the recipes, as well as the person behind them, are more than half the battle. But to recreate the whole is to approximate an individual’s past feeling and experience and pass it along to others today. That’s like walking a tightrope across generations.

At Sprezza, Angela Petruzzelli and family’s downtown restaurant, the Pugliese recipes and vibrant culinary experiences from her visits to family in Southern Italy are what she hopes to convey to the Richmond dining community.

  • Scott Elmquist

Location and decor

Robey: Over on 111 Virginia St., a piecemeal rejuvenation is taking place inside the previously dim and moody dining room. The inspiration is a bright, airy Italian white tablecloth eatery, where tablecloths are matched with reflective, white floors and chalk upholstery. Lighting simultaneously helps and hurts the alabastrine decor; at high beam, things feel a bit department store, at low beam, intimacy takes a toe dip into the huge, square space. While the stark dining room feels like a work-in-progress, a bright and jazzy bar at the front of the restaurant is filled with natural light from the floor to ceiling window, easily dialing up memories of the sea with its shades of teal, turquoise and aquamarine. Sit here.

James: An ambitious move to that location would be a task for anyone; coming from outdoor dining and order pick-ups to a space that is overwhelmingly dark and uninspiring. But the identity of Sprezza is not yet being fully told. A more personal experience gets lost in the whitewashing of an enormous dining space with white table clothes and booths that don’t celebrate any customs or ways of life. Even with a view behind the curtains with a passthrough into the kitchen, the main dining room feels sterile and unwelcoming. You can feel lost in the pseudo-formal dining room, which longs for more curation and genuine expression.

However, when I step into the bar area, adjacent to the dining room, I am transported to a more approachable space. The bar feels inviting and connected to the neighborhood and more than anything else, it’s seductive. I can easily visualize myself there, with a glass of wine and the bold and acidic bruschetta, topped with a mound of tomatoes.

Spaghetti Cozze e Pomodorini (mussels, cherry tomato, Puglia olive oil). - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Spaghetti Cozze e Pomodorini (mussels, cherry tomato, Puglia olive oil).

Food and drink

Robey: The menu (split by courses) showcases a proud Pugliese foundation with a few warm Neapolitan nods guest Chef Alessandro Zamuner brought over from Gaeta, Italy to assist in Petruzzelli’s nostalgic vision. This vision is proving to be a daunting one for Sprezza with some superlatives interspersed with small, but real, letdowns.

You won’t find Americanized lasagna at Sprezza, Bolognese — zero ricotta. The slab of haphazardly plated layered pasta is her grandmother’s recipe; the texture, not quite creamy though not unlike pudding, “spoon bread but make it pasta”; it's top slathered in concentrated fresh tomato sauce.

Crumbly-edge focaccia, another family recipe, is studded with cherry tomatoes and best when served oven-warm and topped with mortadella, or torn into craggy wads and dipped into the spicy Pugliesi olive oil. It’s texture and lush, mouthy bite got lost during a recent lunch when this delightful flatbread was used unsuitably as a small, lukewarm wedge sliced horizontally, forced to be a sandwich and floating lonely on an expanse of white plate. A shock of bright green salad or allowing the diner to build their own meat (or not) laden foccacia bite might change the forlorn lunch dish. House-made pasta is a treat when it’s beautifully made, yet Sprezza’s is often inconsistently prepared.

During the day, you can snag a hearty pasta dish like spaghetti (or in our case, the house fettuccini) enveloped in brisk garlic and olive oil (aglio y olio). Sadly undercooked, it was not yet warm. At dinner, the same fettuccini is over-salted and draped in distinctive choppy sausage and porcini (salsiccia e funghi) mushroom sauce (consequently also quite salty). Whole octopus is common in coastal Italian towns where it is abundantly found and easy to fish. At Sprezza, it’s braised for hours in tomato (polpo in umido) and served fleshy and pliable with terrific in-house made grilled bread. Better befitting the cephalopod’s very cooked texture are the polpo (octopus) sliders with spritely arugula, a seafront treat ensconced in a soft bun.

But the zenith of Sprezza’s Pugliese-inspired menu is their hand-chopped burger – visualize very tiny slivers of beef, no ground meat – and larger-than-life prawn dish. The burger can only be explained as captivating, drip-down-your forearm bliss; a portable, no-knife needed steak (ish) packed loosely on a house-made roll and presented with a splotch of salinity, a caper berry-studded mayonnaise and house-cut fries. The super-sized, panko-coated prawns are fried to mahogany and positioned over a fragile burrata crema studded with poppy seeds: flashy, meaty and fun.

James: The chopped burger, seared and topped with pecorino on a house rosetta roll with fries, is a model of simplicity. And high-end bar items like the Gambero Fritto (prawns) still live on in my mind. Don’t skip any of the house-made bread, especially the flawless, potato-based focaccia with its spongy structure and olive oil dimples. Cured meats and cheeses are easy for any bar and Sprezza has them in spades, but you would be mistaken if you passed on the crispy rice ball. Crisp with a steamy center, the arancini are a hit no matter how they are stuffed or dressed.

Overcooked octopus yields a nearly mushy, less desirable texture, reducing the dish to a briny red sauce only acceptable for dunking grilled slices of bread. The prized lasagna, a clench on so many foodies in the city, left me wanting much more. While the flavor of a rich bechamel and bolognese marry well, overcooked pasta renders the dish devoid of texture.

Robey: When ready for a dessert finale, try the hefty hunk of tiramisu zhuzh’ed up with a bit of white chocolate or the exceedingly sweet apricot tart, too pretty to eat.

Negroni Alla Sprezza. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Negroni Alla Sprezza.

The service

Robey: The overall vibe of this restaurant is on its way or almost there. Lunch felt like a surprise — no lights were on, not even in the kitchen on arrival. Dinner is far more lively in the bar area and the bartenders doing double duty as servers is a boon. Their knowledge of the menu is valuable, shepherding past dishes in need of some refinement. So while you’re not quite transported to a coastal town in Italy at Sprezza, it’s getting easier by the day to visualize the seaside with these weighty family recipes as the main draw.

James: The simplicity of a house-made fettuccine with sausage and mushrooms fell short of being memorable, in addition to the nearly unpalatable level of salt. They should be asking: Is this too salty? Is it balanced? Are the elements of the dish being celebrated? Sprezza seems to be missing that grandma’s touch that was raved about during the pop-ups. But there were moments of hope that are worth celebrating: For me, the main one remains the essence of those highly sought-after pop-ups that rescued us right when we needed it.

*A quick note: Each salty dish was brought to the attention of our server. They were not removed from the table. All menus items ordered were paid for.