You can go to Nove Italiano and surrender your body and your mind to the overloaded sensory broadsides from the lights, the plasma screens and the speaker cabinets bolted to the ceiling and aimed to saturate every corner of the room with ruthless efficiency. You can gulp in the musky sweetness of the Rubenesque topiaries and the cream bustiers on the hostesses with the thick laces lashing the panels together along their long spines.
You can do this and bellow at servers and managers.
Manager: What do you think?
Me: Well, there's a lot of volume.
Or you can approach Nove Italiano another way. You can go on a Tuesday or a Wednesday or even a Thursday if it's early enough and stroll past those forsaken topiaries, watching as they keep all of the sex appeal flash and flicker from the massive Victory Park media screens to themselves. You can stroll up to the hostess stand and catch a glimpse of the bustiers assembled in pairs or even as a trio. You can sit at a table and listen to the music pound and echo—velvety ballads, swishy tromps and twisted, contemporized versions of Spinning Wheel—without the corrosive undercurrent of clanking forks, squealing giggles and bellowing whoops.
Do this and you can even hear the menu slap the table. You can hear the server talk up the delicious spinach salad with lumps of Maryland blue crab and crumbled crispy pancetta and red and gold teardrop tomatoes in mustard vinaigrette. You can sample the squash blossoms: pastry pods stuffed with buffalo mozzarella, basil and anchovy in golden tomato vinaigrette that taste duller than the promises of its menu prose.
You'll be undistracted when your eyes catch the grilled octopus with its heaped bodies and tentacles coiled and charred with feathery sprigs of frisee withered and singed. It's riveting, marinated in Italian herbs and then grilled on hickory embers. Beads of lemon emulsion around the edges are cold and beginning to coagulate. No matter. The bodies are chewy, and they drink up the smoke and blend it with sea-washed flavor. That same chargrill-lemon emulsion combo performs even better in the king salmon, which flakes and seduces with rich pink.
But you'll want to stay clear of the crudo—Italian sashimi. These raw strips of salmon, ahi tuna, yellow tail and branzino dolled with herbs and shaved fennel are over-oiled and over-salted until the fish does nothing but serve as throw rug for slick and grit.
Nove, Italian for nine, is a slobbering lick of glitter. Plasma screens are locked in gilded frames. Some of them rotate digital renditions of famous paintings in a perpetual slideshow of the masters. Chandeliers bejeweled in Italian crystal are embedded with light-emitting diodes that change hues from green to bright red to hot pink—Dallas to Las Vegas to Cinderella's castle. The light reflects harshly off the plasma screen glass, tormenting the masters.
Nove is surfaced in mottled beige travertine that covers the floors and creeps up the walls. Columns with shelving for pillar candles are sheathed in glittery tiles that also cake the ceiling domes. The floor-to-ceiling wine room is embedded with still more LEDs fermenting great gooey curds of light show cheese: bouncing balls, waves of blue, fluttering bats (we think) and star spangles. But wait, what's that? The wine room says "NO." The huge word creeps across the racks in weak yellow.
Heed not. Summon sommelier Rudy Mikula for a bloody sacramental blessing in a creased glass decanter. Mikula is the antithesis of Nove gauche. There are no LEDs embedded in his curly Cossack mane. There are no buxom ferns rooted on his broad bunched shoulders. He wears no tasseled Manolo Blahniks to match his tailored suit. Mikula is an intensely sincere vino-tech, at once discerning, eager and shrewd. He'll usurp your finger and lovingly lug it through the list, helping you shovel out the hidden wines that won't strike your cash flow with sclerosis. A 2003 Avignoesi Vino Nobile for instance, with great clods of berry and violet intensity and a relentless baby pinch of tannin on the finish. Or the lush, earthy 2004 Ajello Furat from Sicily, a hearty blend of merlot, cabernet and syrah plus the Sicilian-bred Nero d' Avola. This wine is weirdly named for the Muslim theologian Asad ibn al Furat who began the Islamic conquest of Byzantine Sicily in 827.
Stroke Mikula's sincere humility and he'll reward you with splashes of this and that, the 2003 Tolaini Al Passo for instance, a sangiovese blend reeking of rutting berry and cedar and long-finish oomph—not a girly wine. Tell him you like it and he'll pour you more, gratis. Ogle the bustiers and the skirts, but spend your time with Mikula when the noise doesn't threaten to pound your senses into drunkenness.
Not that you shouldn't come for the food. Salumi, a wooden platter of cured meats assembled with timepiece precision, is tiny slices of red and pink and blood black speckled with gleaming, round fat points that overlap their way in rows toward your face. Prosciutto ruffles over there, sweet and salt with a deep cured tang on the finish; mortadella folds over there, with its delicate flavors rumpled with bites of pepper and coriander; and wedges of aged cheese and a little blot of seasoned ricotta break the symmetry. The headiest bite: mole, an intensely extracted explosion of carnivore musk from Seattle's Salumi Artisan Cured Meats. These slivery wafers are laced with chocolate, cinnamon and ancho and chipotle peppers gently hoisted on a wisp of smoke.
Stay away from the mushy Nove gnocchi. Approach the pricey steaks with caution. Though alluringly sweet, the joys of the bone-in New York sirloin were more than offset by a preponderance of gristle. Chicken marsala with wild mushrooms and a rich sauce rings with truth, despite the slightly parched chicken meat.
Fish is where the true joy reigns, which raises numerous dilemmas if your mouth craves the kung fu grip and metallic bite of Italian red wine. But there are worse things—those times when Nove's crystal chandeliers suddenly turn hot pink for instance. Delicious halibut slumbers in a distressingly weak English pea broth.
But there is the whole fish, the most profound of these joys. Black bass lies there, its lips and tail reaching beyond the edge of the plate, its concave eye spots filled with a dull glint. Notice how its black skin curls inward at the underside slit, and how easily it peels away from the grayish white segments of meat, moist and slightly sweet, with the seasonings—olive oil, oregano and lemon—throttled back to permit the delicate flavors to creep through with un-Nove-like subtlety.
Finish off with the feathery torta ricatta, a slightly sweet, almost gaseous sensation that relaxes the palate and leaves the belly unscathed.
For the discerning, Nove is alarming. Be careful how you use it. 3090 Olive St., 214-720-9903. Open 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$-$$$$
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