It took months for the patio at L'Uva to come together in a cozy corner of downtown Durham's vibrant American Tobacco Historic District. Upon its completion a couple of weeks ago, those of us who had been watching the project take shape remained as puzzled as we were when it began.
Wooden and glass walls enclose the outside tables and banquettes on three sides. Unlike the other sunny American Tobacco patios—Mellow Mushroom, Tyler's Taproom and Cuban Revolution—the outdoor seating at L'Uva occupies the deep shade of an overhead pedestrian walkway. Viewed from afar, the space seems incomplete, maybe even aloof.
Settle into one of the two dozen or so woven-backed chairs, though, and you understand what chef-owner Jim Anile of downtown Durham's Revolution is going for. While crowds fill the nearby patios with a boisterous din befitting their restaurants' menus of burgers and pizza, the atmosphere on L'Uva's patio is more subdued. Through the walls you can watch, but not hear, the traffic rumble by on the Durham Freeway. Instead of engine roar, you get the splashing of American Tobacco's stream and the low murmur of piped-in music.
The interior space is equally refined, without being fussy. The tables wear no cloths, but a layer of egg-crate panels on the underside of each helps keep the sound from bouncing around too much. Chandeliers of egg-shaped bulbs emit a golden glow, while window screens help lunchtime diners forget that people are working nearby. By the time one of the blue-and-white-aproned waiters hands you a wine list, you know better than to ask if they have any beer specials on tap.
The restaurant's full name, L'Uva Enoteca, offers a big hint as well. The wine list is small, with slightly more than 20 bottles, but it covers a lot of Italian ground. Every choice comes by the glass or the bottle, and in keeping with Italian tradition, the wine comes in tumblers, not stemware. The selection of cocktails numbers just five, and after trying one, we're optimistic that the reputation Anile established at the Revolution bar will remain unblemished. The Acescence ($7) is a refreshing blend of Fino and Amontillado sherries with cherry juice, muddled thyme and fresh lemon, a perfect autumnal alternative to summer's sangrias.
The menu, which Anile has promised will incorporate seasonal changes, started strong at the end of August with a balance of fresh seafood and rich meat dishes in the style of Mario Batali. Dishes like rigatini with spicy pork sausage, rapini and roasted pearl onions ($12) are sure to find fans, and anyone who values ambition will be pulling for choices like taglioni in ink with rock shrimp, squid, asparagus and roasted red peppers ($14).
A special seared-scallop salad played off the light, sweet meat of the shellfish with tender greens dressed in a lively orange-tinged vinaigrette. Ricotta and thick slices of local tomato made for a beautiful and delicious starter. But the best beginning was probably the delicate plate of carpaccio with shaved Parmesan, artichoke hearts, fresh lemon and olive oil ($10).
It's probably best to wait until late September brings a slight chill to the air before digging into the braciole di manzo with saffron risotto and grana padano ($13). It's a healthy portion of slow-braised meat and rich risotto, as filling and hearty as the carpaccio is light. It's a lot to tuck into unless you've worked up quite an appetite, but if you're craving comfort food, go for it.
Tiramisu ($7) failed to delight on a first try, lacking the necessary airiness, but we are nothing if not hopeful, so we tried it a second time and found it much lighter. A gelato alla Nutella ($6) conveyed all the lovable hazelnuttiness of the breakfast spread with none of the gumminess.
Better than either of the desserts, and a much greater surprise, was the beef tongue sandwich ($9). The slow-cooked tongue is full of rich, roasted beef flavor with a texture so tender it hardly needs chewing. The intense notes of the meat contrast beautifully with the vinegar spikes of pickled celery, red onion, black olives and cauliflower that are served alongside it. Never having tried beef tongue before, I did not realize what I was missing.
A rich red pepper peperonata spread on the crusty bread was more sweet than spicy, as the menu described, but paired with thick slices of pecorino cheese, it all worked. After years of relying on the district's casual dining options, the American Tobacco crowd might not have realized anything was missing either. Maybe L'Uva is just what we need.