Return to Yesterday?
Sapori can do its own thing, but it needs to step up its game to compete with restaurants that are riding the trends.
Greenville Center, 3801 Kennett Pike, 654-9501
Olive Ascalone, veal saltimbocca, bresaola
Delaware was once populated by white-linen Italian restaurants whose names still evoke a sense of nostalgia: L’Osteria, Carruci, Positano, Vincente’s, Mario’s, Cynthia’s and Amalfi. Vincente’s left the state. The others are long gone.
In many respects, Sapori Ristorante Italiano in Greenville brings back the old days, a time when upscale Italian fare was synonymous with fine dining and special occasions. The question is whether enough Delaware diners want to return to those days, given the preponderance of hip bistros and the trend toward Mediterranean fusion.
Sapori is located in Amalfi’s old digs. Happily, that restaurant’s dark, clubby atmosphere is gone, and the intimate dining room is now light and airy. The decor is attractive, though not terribly innovative. Some customers might feel like they’re eating in the formal dining room of a McMansion. Pillars have been faux-finished to resemble marble, and there’s cool natural stone in the entrance-bar area.
Sapori, which means “flavors” in Italian, offers several dishes you won’t see at Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill. Consider olive Ascalone, bresaola and baccala. Seeing these lyrical-sounding items on a menu gives the restaurant a stamp of authenticity.
Olive Ascalone was by far my favorite dish at Sapori, and I can certainly imagine stopping at the bar for a plate of these fried beauties and an icy martini—though a glass of wine would have been more economical. We were charged $2 extra for requesting a dirty martini with rocks on the side. The cost of olive juice and water has apparently gone up with the price of gas.
Surrounding a mound of sautéed garlicky spinach, the breaded olives were stuffed with Asiago cheese and fried into crunchy gold orbs. The crisp, gooey combination, infused with a dusky flavor, made jalapeño poppers and mozzarella sticks look pedestrian.
Bresaola is worth a repeat visit. Lemon-spritzed arugula decorated with Parmesan cheese provided the backdrop for the paper-thin slices of ruby-red beef. The combination was slightly salty, slightly sharp, slightly citrusy and all together wonderful.
Bruschetta, available at lunch, was dear at $8 for three slices, even with the touted homemade mozzarella. Unfortunately, the tomatoes were pale and tasteless. I liked the springy cubes of alabaster mozzarella, but the whole dish needed a sprinkle of salt and a heavier dose of fresh, sharp garlic.
More garlic also would have elevated orecchiette tossed with broccoli rabe and sausage. I could see flecks of garlic resting in the cup-shaped pasta. I just couldn’t taste its bite. Otherwise, the pasta was a straightforward dish, the orecchiette acting as a catcher’s mitt for bits of greens and sausage.
Sapori offers other appealing pasta options, including simple capellini tossed with cherry tomatoes in a basil sauce, homemade fettuccine with shrimp in pesto, and lobster ravioli.
Though the crimped edges of the homemade lobster ravioli were tough and chewy, the vodka cream sauce was a winner. I was delighted that the baby shrimp were larger than the tiny rock shrimp I’d expected.
I was disappointed, however, in the shrimp that nested in the risotto. A few of the promised jumbo shrimp curled like pink commas next to ribbons of red and yellow sweet peppers and strips of tart sun-dried tomato. Tucked into the mix were shrimp that could fall into the large or even medium category. The arborio rice still had teeth, but the texture wasn’t in the least creamy.
The kitchen struck a nice balance with veal saltimbocca, medallions pounded into tender submissiveness. A savory buttery-sage sauce softened the saltiness of the prosciutto, which was a rosy blanket atop the veal. I would have enjoyed it more if the side of sautéed spinach had indeed been served on the side. Olive oil ran into the sage sauce, diluting the nice flavors.
I’m surprised, given the availability of fresh seafood, that Sapori doesn’t offer more than salmon and flounder on its standard menu. What does stand out is the baccala, baked with onions, potatoes and olives in a plum tomato sauce.
“It tastes like cod,” said our server, who was new to the restaurant. Not really. Baccala is salt cod, a dish with its roots in many countries, including Spain, Norway and Portugal. Salt cod is easily stacked and therefore easily transportable, and because it’s heavily salted, it can survive a prolonged journey. Using baccala in the kitchen requires numerous soakings, with frequent water changes, to re-hydrate the fish before cooking and eliminate the saltiness.
Our server explained none of this to us, and any diner expecting a cod-like dish would have been let down. I put a piece of white fish in my mouth and started to chew. Then I chewed some more. I’d expected the fish to be firm, but I felt like I was grinding away at fish gum. Perhaps another bath or two would have helped. We found it inedible.
Baccala is pretty exotic stuff for most palates, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s an acquired taste. Never fear. There are plenty of familiar entrées on Sapori’s menu, including shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, grilled filet mignon, pork chops in Madeira sauce, and a veal chop topped with prosciutto and fontina cheese.
Sapori has the ability to fill a niche that’s been left open for too long. Chains specializing in Italian fare—or what passes for it in the United States—are nevertheless a threat. So are the bistros that fuse Italian cuisine with fare from Spain and France.
To fill this niche, the execution and the quality must live up to the prices, which seem to reflect the neighborhood more than the preparation. The lowest-priced pasta dish at dinner was $18, which seems steep for pasta with sautéed vegetables. And the up charge on the martini made our jaws drop. I’ve paid more for a certain type of vodka but never for olive juice or ice.
Greenville is a demanding area. If Sapori really wants us to pine for the good old days, it needs to deliver exceptional cuisine that’s expertly prepared. In other words, we need an old-fashioned bang for the buck.
New Hawaiian restaurants offer something truly fresh.
Many eager restaurateurs claim their new digs will transport diners to another world. Regan Derrickson might actually have a case.
Derrickson’s companion Dewey Beach restaurants—Ponos Hawaiian Fine Dining and Nalu Hawaiian Surf Bar & Grille—have been turning heads since they opened in March. Specifically, patrons crane their necks upward at Ponos, where the ceiling is covered with 1,600 fiber optic stars, each one painstakingly installed by Derrickson and his father.
It took 80 hours, but the results are breathtaking. When matched with tranquil waterfalls and a 12-by-32 foot mural, “It’s very impressive,” Derrickson says. “Like a Hawaiian rainforest at nighttime.”
Nalu is a bit more relaxed. It’s a family-friendly environment with a thatched roof, totem poles, surfboards and, of course, a tiger shark hanging from the ceiling.
Ponos Hawaiian Fine Dining and Nalu Hawaiian Surf Bar & Grille (1306 and 1308 Coastal Hwy., Dewey Beach, 227-3119) also differ slightly when it comes to food.
Ponos’ signature dish is macadamia and cilantro crusted opakapaka, a Hawaiian red snapper, with smoked coconut, charred pineapple, toasted corn and tomato concasse and yuzu butter. Nalu is where you saddle up to Kalua pig and lau lau.
“Hawaii has such good cuisine. There are elements of Pan-Asian, American West Coast and fresh island flavor,” Derrickson says, “right off the vine, right out of the water.”
And right under the stars. —Matt Amis
Nine Million Viewers Can’t Be Wrong
A Newark couple makes their television debut. The icing on their cupcake? Lots of new business.
Mike and Tara Voigt were meant for TV. The telegenic husband and wife own Sweet and Sassy Cupcakes in Newark, which rolls out heavenly cupcakes across the country daily. He bakes the cakes, she makes the frosting. He’s the sweet, she’s the sassy.
For seven hours in June, Mike and Tara mixed, frosted and mugged for Food Network cameras. It was only a matter of time.
The prime-time program “Road Tasted with the Neelys” features celebrity chefs Pat and Gina Neely traveling the country for awesome food finds. The Neelys staged their Main Street entrance on a muggy Friday morning, then proceeded to interview the Voigts and walk through the cupcake-making magic.
“Off camera we were fantastic,” Tara Voigt says with a laugh. “Once the cameras started rolling, it was such a blur, I don’t even remember what we said.
“It was very formal. There were multiple retakes, walkthroughs, and then you have to do it again and make it seem spontaneous,” she says. “The Neelys made it look so easy, but they are truly a gifted, talented couple.”
The show—and its expected 9 million viewers—should be a boon for business. Food Network warned the Voigts might see a big spike in sales once the show airs—somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 to 800 orders within the first six hours of airtime. That’s a lot of cupcakes.
At the end of the day, the Voigts’ segment may be as short as 10 minutes, but if that leads to 800 orders, the Voigts will take it gladly. Still, “I don’t anticipate ‘The Mike and Tara Show’ on Food Network anytime soon,” Voigt says. “We’ll probably be cringing with embarrassment.”
Catch Sweet and Sassy on “Road Tasted with the Neelys” on Food Network this month. Time TBA. —Matt Amis