I dearly love an old-school restaurant -- a place that has seen its share of first dates, engagements anniversary dinners and birthdays, a place with enough staying power to become a family tradition. Villa Nova, a restaurant with a reputation for fine-dining Italian cuisine and a romantic atmosphere, has been dishing up eggplant Parmesan, veal piccata and scampi for more than 30 years. I hadn't been there in at least 15 years and thought it was time to take a peek into this culinary time capsule. What is the secret of its success? What makes one restaurant seem dated while others seem timeless?
I met a couple friends for dinner on a recent Thursday evening. The room is warm and cozy with decor that is decidedly … vintage. It's a comforting room: Photographs and Alaskana cover the walls, vintage cookware and Tiffany-style lamps crowd the top of a wood-burning stove, musical instruments and model ships improbably share space in a way that is at once eclectic and soothing. It's all a bit fussy and I wholeheartedly approve.
The most enchanting thing about the dining room is the live guitar music. Subtly amplified -- neither too loud for conversation nor too quiet for enjoyment -- it lends a sense of occasion to the proceedings. A charming note about this: In 2014, Shawn Lyons, the guitar player who has been serenading Villa Nova's diners for three decades, purchased the business from the restaurant's founder and chef Georgio Chrimat who, sadly, died the same year. And so, while there has been a "change in management," there's a familial continuity that must be reassuring to the restaurant's regulars.
My friends arrived and we agreed to eat family-style, choosing three appetizers and three entrees to share. The menu is a nostalgic representation of old-school Italian cookery -- nothing reinvented or deconstructed here. Creamy pastas, a whole section devoted to scampi and red meat are all represented. It's a pretty impressive menu right down to the impressive prices. The food might be old school but the prices are, ahem, modern.
Which brings me to the food. To start, we opted for warm dolmades (stuffed grape leaves, $10.95), a buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad ($15.95) and the gnocchi appetizer with Gorgonzola sauce ($16.95).
First the good news. The dolmades were delicious -- served warm (a new concept for me and I love it) in a delightful lemon sauce -- light, tart and mysteriously creamy, I could have eaten two plates of these. Further, I would put this sauce on everything from salad to chicken to pasta. Are you listening, Villa Nova? Bottle this please.
The gnocchi appetizer was good but not spectacular. The gnocchi itself was a bit bland (even a bit watery), and I wish we had opted for something other than the recommended Gorgonzola sauce. To be clear, this was just an ordering-strategy error. The sauce was deliciously creamy with a subtle pungency but it was altogether too heavy for an appetizer (and I should add that the portion was huge). We had to demonstrate extreme restraint to keep from ruining our appetites for the main course.
The real disappointment was the buffalo mozzarella salad. It was a problematic dish, starting with the price tag ($15.95). My biggest issue is that I'm not 100 percent convinced that the cheese served was actually authentic buffalo mozzarella (made from the milk of water buffalo). To me, it had the flavor and consistency of the pre-sliced, pre-packaged mozzarella that you get from Costco (made from cow's milk). As an ingredient, it's fine; I use it all the time. But buffalo mozzarella is special -- softer, creamier, stringier and with a distinct tang underlying all its creaminess. And this cheese wasn't special. My second problem was with the tomatoes -- pale, slightly mealy and lacking in flavor, these tomatoes were, simply put, not good. I'm sympathetic to the challenge of finding ripe, flavorful tomatoes during winter months, but this simple, rustic dish demands high-quality ingredients and if they can't be found, it should be taken off the menu until they become available. That said, I loved the basil -- the mound of delicate chiffonade was expertly done and allows the flavor to elevate every bite.
The entrees, too, had some highs and lows. The tournedos Bolognese ($34.95) had all of the components of a winner. Filet mignon, mushrooms, cheese and ham. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, it arrived at the table overdone. We requested medium rare and there was not a hint of pink in the interior. While this aspect of the dish was disappointing, the flavor combination was not. And the sauce was delicious -- rich, creamy and full of depth, I would happily order a bowl of this sauce with a basket of bread for dipping.
Happily, the rack of lamb ($38.95) arrived at the table with a perfectly medium-rare interior. It's a beautifully presented dish with a little bit of good, old-fashioned panache -- layers of sauce were fanned out around the plate to create an edible work of art. While beautiful, however, this dish had its problems. The meat itself was a bit tough. Strong jaws needed here. And while the breading on the meat was crisp and well seasoned, I wasn't crazy about it. It masked the delicate flavor of the lamb.
My favorite entree was the scampi Florentina ($32.95). The plump shrimp were well cooked -- firm but not tough -- and served over fat noodles that were perfectly al dente. The brandy cream sauce was delicate and subtle, allowing the flavor of the seafood to really sing. This is a simple, well-executed dish that I would happily order again.
Two of our entrees came with side dishes of creamed spinach and potatoes, which were both superb. The spinach (often a stodgy dish) was studded with pine nuts and juicy little grapes that lent interest to this standby. And the scalloped potatoes are tender and full of flavor as if they'd been basted in some sort of rich stock.
A word about the service: I really enjoyed the leisurely pacing of our meal. Dinner at Villa Nova is not a rushed affair. And while our waitress was friendly and knowledgeable, she was discreet and not invasive. It made for a relaxed and intimate evening with friends.
I'm of two minds about this review. Our meal at Villa Nova was both promising and problematic. There were some real missteps on the plate (except for those sauces -- the chef really knows his sauces) and with the "fine-dining" prices, I expect everything to taste like "fine dining." On the other hand, I enjoyed the nostalgic romance of the room, the slow pace, the music and the sense of ceremony that Villa Nova offers. Would I return? Yes, happily. But I have to ask: Who's picking up the check?
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Location: 5121 Arctic Blvd.
Contact: 907-561-1660 and villanovaalaska.com