(FROM LEFT): Charred octopus served with a niçoise potato salad and green olive gazpacho; tiramisu.//photos by Joe Del Tufo
On the food front, my too-brief experience of Italy proved one important thing, and it opened my eyes to another. First, the food is as excellent as you’ve heard and, second, it’s not always what you expect—which is to say that you can easily find a Chinese takeout in Rome, and that many upscale restaurants aspire to nothing less noble than serving innovative food that transcends regional distinctions.
In fact, some restaurants in Italy can be so eclectic of influence, so seemingly un-Italian, you wouldn’t be surprised to find one posing as modern American in a place like Wilmington. That lends a certain legitimacy to Bardea. The latest of newcomer to Market Street describes itself as “interpretive Italian,” though it also seems to lose something in translation.
On one hand, the DNA is clear on the menu of pizzas, in a smattering of ingredients in other dishes, in an admirable—indeed, commendable—effort to assemble a list of wines made in Italy or with some other tie to the country, and in the person of chef Antimo DiMeo, who earned his bona fides in a kitchen near Napoli. On the other, the culinary influences range so widely, the food overall could be labeled as almost anything.
The dining room features a stamped-tin ceiling, warm wooden tabletops and floors and a beautiful landscape mural.//photo by Joe Del Tufo
Not that it matters much, unless you’re anticipating the experience we’ve come to expect from most local Italian places. Bardea’s merits and flaws have less to do with how it describes itself than it does with some conceptual basics and execution.
We arrived at primetime, 6 p.m. on a Friday, about six weeks after its grand opening, to find the bar area hopping. (I hope that is a sign that Market Street has reached a sustainable mass of interesting places to eat and drink.) We also found a dining room that is stunningly designed, with rustic rafters, a stamped-tin ceiling, warm wooden tabletops and floors, mason-jar pendant lamps, big storefront windows, and a beautiful landscape mural accented with pinpoints of light that all combine in a comfortable, contemporary way that is a draw on its own. The room filled in the short time it took to choose our meals.
Ordering requires some strategy, and the eclectic flavors force a bit of reckless gastronomy, but isn’t a little heedless fun what a night out is for? Our server suggested working from the top of the menu to the bottom in the traditional way—from so-called snacks and salads to small dishes, pizzas and pastas to meals for the entire table–while cautioning that the food arrives not as tidy courses, but according to how quickly it is prepared. That’s great if you’re sharing, so go in that spirit.
(FROM LEFT): Truffle toast with goat cheese, spring onion, candied walnut, drunken amarena and honey; SUNFLOWER HUMMUS WITH BLACK LIME, AND ZA’ATAR. //photos by Joe Del Tufo
We ordered heavily from the “snack” and small plate sections of the menu. We first shared a hummus made not of chick peas and tahini, but of pureed sunflower seeds topped with a spritz of black lime. Nothing in that says “Italian” to me except perhaps the oregano in the blend of herbs known as za’atar that was sprinkled on top. No matter. Creamy and rich with olive oil, it was a highlight of our meal.
We were similarly impressed by the truffle toast: three thick half slices of pumpernickel spread with earthy truffled goat cheese studded with sautéed onion rings, candied walnuts and tart Amarena cherries, all drizzled with honey—a delicious combination of flavors and textures that made the palate stand at full attention.
Next arrived ricotta gnocchi, which proved definitely the “interpretive” description. The dumplings were no lumpy mass of potato pasta flavored with cheese, but crispy pan-fried potato cakes filled cream-puff style with ricotta, then topped with generous shavings of Romano and a frizz of the mint-like herb shiso. The dish leaned farther east via a sake-style ceramic flask of light tomato sauce on the side. The idea is to pour your own in order to prevent the ricotta from liquefying in the kitchen—though the sauce was so tepid, that was hardly a danger.
Intrigued by the accompaniments, we ordered the charred octopus with great expectations. The nicoise salad on the side was a delightful dice of briny olives and potatoes, and the pool of olive gazpacho provided a tang. But the tentacle was so thick, it had to overcook in order to char. When the kitchen has the dish dialed in, I am sure it’s amazing. And served whole, that black leg does make a striking visual impression.
We judged the “upside-down” pizza (sauce over the cheese) to be good and the homemade paccheri to be very good, but the braised short rib served with it was so bland, no amount of caramelized onion or airy provolone fondue could help. I’d quibble a bit with our server, too. Helpful and friendly, she nevertheless addressed a member of our party as “hon” twice (there is nothing wrong with that particular endearment—it just doesn’t suit the tone of some restaurants), failed to bring new utensils after the old ones were removed with each empty plate, and quickly blamed the kitchen for “screwing up all night” when sent to our table with a dish we hadn’t ordered, which seemed a minor error to me.
That won’t stop me from exploring further. There were parts of the menu we never touched: a handful of raw bar offerings, tantalizing vegetable sides (a casserole of root vegetables with green apple and porcini, for example) and the “feed-the-table” section of meals for two to four diners: whole roasted chicken, rack of Berkshire pork and a 44-ounce Delmonico steak with a tapenade of apricots, lentils and cashews.
Plus, the vibe is lively and fun, the prices are more than reasonable and the tiramisu—loosely interpreted, of course—will blow your doors off.
620 N. Market St., Wilmington • 426-2069
Prices: Snacks: $7-$9; small plates: $8-$21; pizza and pasta: $10-$17; feed-the-table meals: $21-$85
Recommended: Sunflower hummus with black lime and za’atar, truffle toast, charred octopus, tiramisu