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Enrigo Italian Bistro: pizza, pasta, panna cotta

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From its nook in the rear of Waverly Place in Cary, Enrigo Italian Bistro overlooks a poodle-trimmed, fountain-lulled mini-park whose ensemble lacks only a urinating cupid. Resisting this New Urban artificiality, Enrigo serves up hearty, earthy, unselfconscious versions of the Italian classics. The fare is not what you would call intricate or subtle, but nor is it tentative. This is cuisine without a trace of an identity crisis.

Seven months into what will surely be a long run, Enrigo is flush with success. Even mid-week, the dinner trade spills onto the courtyard patio, where a dozen tables accommodate the overflow. First-daters wait for tables, hoping their patter holds up for another 15 minutes. Kids tug at skirts and hang from wrists, but the anticipation of pizza curbs any serious whining. Plates go back empty. The dessert debate—should we, shouldn't we—tends to end in should.

At its best—note the qualification—Enrigo may even appease exiles of the Philadelphia-Boston corridor, where the old red sauce culture lingers elegiacally at the feet of a few dozen I-95 exit ramps. Chef Meri Serpillo, who hails from Tuscany, may be startled to find herself measured against New Haven's Wooster Square and Boston's North End, but a packed room softens even an aggressive irony.

The calamari & gamberi fritti ($12.99)—fried calamari and shrimp—make clear Enrigo's spry way with simple ingredients. It is an object lesson in the preparation of a dish that rarely evades its twin nemeses: greasiness and rubberiness. Enrigo's version is crisp, tender and light. Though served in enormous portions, it is quickly dispatched. You ask, "How are we ever going to finish this?" Within minutes, the question has become, "Where did it go?" The Triangle offers no better version of this world-heritage dish.

Equally impeccable is the melanzana alla Parmigiana ($15.99), eggplant parm, which is baked in a terra cotta ramekin brimming with marinara and melted mozzarella. The kitchen coaxes an astonishing sweetness from the eggplant. The strip-mall pizza-joint version, which reduces the eggplant to mere structural support and lasagna decking, is utterly shamed. If you haven't tried the real thing, Enrigo affords the opportunity.

Within seconds of being seated for the first time, you will notice the staff ferrying platters heaped with little balloons of fried dough. The dish is a literal head-turner: as the platters come and go, diners follow their progress with the oscillating glance of a tennis crowd. This cynosure of an appetizer turns out to be coccoli ($14.99), Enrigo's signature dish. The coccoli are served with paper-thin slices of prosciutto and a weighty ramekin of stracchino, a soft cheese from Lombardy whose relatives include taleggio and robiola. You slather the coccoli with the cheese and then wrap in the prosciutto. This is a wittily arranged game of textural contrasts, but I must nitpick. The slightly pungent stracchino tends to overpower the delicate prosciutto.

Chewy, thick and irregular, the house-made pastas spit at the geometries of the modernist kitchen lab. Consider a helping of tagliolini ($14.99). No two strands of this hefty, ropy noodle are identical; each strand has its own mouth-feel, its own textural gradients. The palate remains alert to these shifts, pleased that even the last strand on the plate communicates something not quite repetitious. The beef-stuffed cappelletti ($14.99) are the dumpling equivalent, each portly in its own way.

The pastas are complemented by a choice of sauces—11 of them, though none straying from the rudiments of tomato, cream and oil. The sauces do no harm, but I miss certain grace notes of spice and herb, bass notes of meat and bone, the faintest sheen of fat and oil. Several of these sauces are clearly victims of their own well-intentioned healthiness and vegetarianism—likewise the pollo alla Parmigiana ($15.99), which is apparently baked rather than pan-fried: hence slightly tough.

The baked pastas, on the other hand, are not remotely guilty of "well-intentioned healthiness." Bubbling with béchamel, these dishes are rich and dense. In the world of sweets, their analogue is fudge; in the world of music, Brahms. They are paired with grilled vegetables and lightly crisped potato chunks. On the menu, these sides seem uninspired. On the plate, they make perfect sense: Their job is to cut the richness of the entree.

"Pizza" is a fighting word. Everyone has his or her philosophical first principles, pet peeves, mythic childhood pie in comparison to which no merely terrestrial pizza will ever measure up. Enrigo's brick-oven pizzas ($10.99–$15.99) begin with the basics and escalate in creativity. But of course the arugula, feta and salmon are incidental. What matters is the crust. Pizza crust should resemble the best artisanal bread (this is one of those provocative first principles). It should be charred, blistered, elaborately riddled with the strands and holes of its gluten development. It should look as if lightning has struck it.

Enrigo's crust represents the reverse school of thought. It's crispy and light, verging on cracker-like renunciation—especially the undressed perimeter.

This is thoughtful pizza, wine-friendly pizza, pizza to be nibbled as an appetizer without obliterating your appetite—but not necessarily soulful pizza. Connoisseurs will have to control for their own biases and judge for themselves.

I have misgivings about the desserts—an overly gelatinized panna cotta, a brownie-like torte—but these are presumably works in progress. Minor gaffes notwithstanding, Enrigo will thrive. It's a neighborhood restaurant in a post-neighborhood era. Trying to fork our erratically shaped tagliolini, we remember what we've missed.

Clarification: Enrigo is now open for dinner on Sunday.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Splendido!"

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