Discovery and Rediscovery
Mediterranean and European influences make for an inspired contemporary Italian menu at TinTinNio
9070 Research Blvd., 275-1206
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm; Sunday, noon-9pm
Happy Hour: Monday-Saturday, 3-7pm; Sunday, all day
The classic sound of glasses clinking together in an Italian toast is "tin-tin." When the owners of this new North Austin restaurant consulted with Executive Chef Justin Sells about the menu he envisioned, he described contemporary Italian dishes with some Mediterranean and European influences. Sells' vision for the cuisine inspired the restaurant's name, TinTinNio, signifying a comfortable place where interesting culinary ideas come together in an Italian framework. A friend and I stumbled across the new eatery quite by accident this summer and were truly impressed with the ambience as well as chef Sells' menu. I had been a fan of his cooking when he was at DemiEpicurious and was happy to find him again.
We were pleasantly surprised to discover a classy, comfortable room with a friendly staff and a bill of fare featuring enough intriguing choices to require several return visits. Based on a half-priced happy-hour promotion, we cut a wide swatch through the appetizer portion of the menu, ordering Fried Calamari ($8.95), Fried Artichoke Hearts ($8.65), Bruschetta ($6.95), and Suppli ($5.95). We probably wouldn't have ordered so many if we'd had any idea how generous the portions would be, but they were all delicious. The fried items are delicately battered and lightly fried, paired with a full-bodied, spicy marinara for dipping. Our favorites were the artichoke hearts, dusted in semolina and drizzled with a mustard cream sauce, and the suppli, creamy risotto balls rolled in crisp panko bread crumbs.
The 12 pasta and risotto offerings caused real consternation, as we were already too full to order more than one apiece. We settled on Sells' creative rendition of Surf and Turf ($15.45), fresh tagliatelle with Broken Arrow Ranch wild boar sausage, prawns, and zucchini in a tomato pesto cream, and the Saffron Risotto ($16.25), a huge bowl of creamy yellow rice topped with toothsome petit veal osso buco and fresh grated orange zest. The pasta with sausage and shrimp was hearty and satisfying, but the risotto was a real revelation. In addition to ample saffron, the voluptuous rice was flavored with marrow butter and Parmesan cheese. The orange zest added the perfect light grace note to all the richer flavors. The dainty veal shanks were just the right size with plenty of fork-tender meat. The only thing missing was a marrow spoon to retrieve the last tiny delectable morsels from inside the bones. Magnifico!
At this point, we'd obviously already eaten far too much to even consider dessert, but the mention of lemon curd called out to me. It became apparent that we would have to eat past the pain. The Dolce al Formaggio "Che Crollare" ($5.75) is a bowl of tangy lemon curd and vanilla custard folded into mascarpone cheese, paired with liqueur-macerated berries, and topped with a crunchy burnt sugar crust. Not really a cheesecake and not quite a pudding, it's light and refreshing on the palate the best lemon dessert I've had this year.
I recruited a larger group of friends for the next trip to TinTinNio, and we devoured appetizers, salads, and more pastas. There are meat and fish entrées here, but they will just have to wait. We were favorably impressed by the Prince Edward Island Mussels ($10.45) with lager braised onions in a rich, elegant mustard cream sauce. So impressed, in fact, that we used an entire basket of focaccia to sop up the sauce once the mussels were gone. The rosemary fries that came with the mussels were a greasy disappointment, however, and the dish would have been fine without them. The Chop Salad ($5.95, $8.95) is substantial enough for a full meal, with a bowl of chopped romaine and iceberg chock-full of chicken, aged salami, mozzarella, pecorino, chick peas, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and scallions in a tangy red wine vinaigrette. Three of my guests ordered wines by the glass from the small but well-chosen wine list and were delighted with our server's suggestions.
The star on that last evening was undoubtedly the Ravioli ($14.95), ethereal pasta pillows filled with braised veal and ricotta cheese, bathed in an unctuous brandy and green peppercorn reduction, with sautéed proscuitto, mushrooms, torn basil leaves, and creamy roasted garlic. We shared the large bowl of pasta around the table, and the resulting moans of pleasure drew attention from other diners. Like everything else we sampled here, it was bountiful, flavorful, and satisfying. Bring some friends together to savor TinTinNio.