Verona: A Neighborhood Restaurant in Search of a Neighborhood
Verona owner knows how to take care of customers
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., March 1, 2013
Happy Hour: Mon.-Fri., 3-7pm
Verona Ristorante Italiano6406 N. I-35 #2949, 458-3500
Sun.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm; happy hour: Mon.-Fri., 3-7pm
I became acquainted with genial restaurateur Reza Faridi when he ran the Tree House Italian Grill, just off South Congress. It was a popular, affordable neighborhood spot, and I developed a fondness for the spaghetti and meatballs there when I lived in nearby Bouldin Creek. I've been gone from South Austin 10 years now, and Faridi is no longer associated with the Tree House. Imagine how pleased I was to see him on a recent visit to the new-ish Verona outlet in Lincoln Village. This second Verona outlet took over a former Carrabba's space almost a year ago and is still trying to build a customer base and find a nearby neighborhood with which to affiliate. Driving through Lincoln Village, I couldn't help wondering if the long-range redevelopment of Highland Mall will eventually revitalize the second shopping center, and how long that might take.
Guests enter Verona through a foyer and a full bar with a small stage in one corner. Inside are a long, open kitchen and three comfortable dining rooms decorated with pastoral Michael Peschka murals depicting the Italian countryside, heavy draperies, and substantial furniture. Carrabba's created an interactive bustle by seating guests where they could see the busy open kitchen with its working wood-fired pizza oven. The atmosphere at Verona is more sedate, creating a fine dining impression when the restaurant really is family-friendly, with good value for the money.
A friend joined me for an early dinner recently, and we found ourselves dining with one family, two couples, and a few single business people. The soundtrack featured Fifties Italian singers (Al Martino, Louis Prima, Dean Martin, etc.) with the occasional aria thrown in. The staff is friendly and attentive, knowledgeable about the menu, and eager to please – a refreshing change from some of the city's trendier hipster joints. There's a full wine list, and cocktails are available from the bar. We started dinner with a house special appetizer called Chicken Tostini ($7.95) – spiced, shredded chicken wrapped in pasta and deep-fried, served with a chipotle mayonnaise for dipping. This flauta-like dish was the only thing on the menu that didn't read as Italian, and I don't think I would order it again. The other appetizer listing that caught our eye was fresh lump crab cannelloni ($19.95), and even though it was listed as an appetizer by mistake, our server was kind enough to split it for us, which was a good thing. The filled pasta tubes were huge, stuffed with sweet lump crab meat and napped with marina sauce. The dish was simple, elegant, and very satisfying.
Moving on to entrées, we chose osso buco ($26.95) and a pan-sautéed trout ($17.95) in a white wine butter sauce with mushrooms and artichoke hearts. The fish was perfectly cooked, moist and flaky, but we both felt the wine sauce could have used a little more reduction to take off the alcohol edge and consolidate the flavors. With sides of spaghetti with marinara and sautéed vegetables, the trout made for a formidable meal. The veal shank was equally formidable: fall-off-the-bone tender chunks of meat with carrot batons and mushroom slices, slow-cooked in the rich red wine sauce. The extra meat with grilled garlic bread and the side of spaghetti marinara made a lovely lunch the next day. Stuffed as we were, we opted to split dessert – a pudding-like tiramisu ($6.50) with delicate ladyfingers soaked in a light espresso syrup, enveloped in velvety mascarpone, and topped with chocolate shavings.
Returning for lunch with some girlfriends, we chose several things to share, and our server was very accommodating. The special Tropical Salad ($10.95) was a mélange of baby greens tossed with orange and apple slices, dried cranberries, candied nuts, black olives, and avocado slices with the house garlic ranch or balsamic vinaigrette. We came to the conclusion that perhaps the olives and avocado slices belonged on another plate, because the flavors were at odds with those of the fruits and candied nuts. One of my dining companions who has to avoid gluten was thrilled that her lunch could be made with gluten-free pasta upon request. The spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil ($8.25) was definitely to her liking and satiated a pasta craving that often goes unsatisfied. My lunch-special pasta Mari Monte ($12.95) featured shrimp and small bits of Italian sausage in a luxurious garlic cream sauce. My one suggestion here would be that three or four large Gulf shrimp would have made a more dramatic presentation than several small ones.
I'd love to see Verona succeed in Lincoln Village. Even though there are a couple of good pizza joints nearby, it's a shame to see that wood-fired pizza oven sitting all unused and forlorn. I can envision a jovial happy-hour crowd devouring pizzas over cocktails with some live acoustic music in the background, families celebrating special occasions, couples lingering over dinner. Reza Faridi is a restaurateur who knows how to take care of his customers. What Verona needs most is a neighborhood willing to adopt it as one of their regular hangouts.