Eastside News

Exploring a quartet of recently opened restaurants

One positive aspect of the ongoing gentrification of Central East Austin is the dramatic increase in neighborhood dining options. New coffee shops, casual eateries, and family restaurants are popping up all over.

Here's an example of just how fast things are happening: While we were preparing reviews of four of the more established new places, we discovered three additional spots. It's still too early to review the newest places, but here is what we can report today. Mark and Lisa Spedale's Primizie Osteria (1000 E. 11th #200, 236-0088, www.primizieaustin.com) debuted a couple of weeks ago in a chic, modern space, offering counter service with a very inviting eat-in or takeout menu. Ingrid Fiallo, proprietor of Ingrid's Bodega (1111 Chicon), hopes to reopen in time for the holidays after an extensive interior remodel at her small store. Eva Lindsey e-mailed with the news that the recently refurbished and revitalized Victory Grill (1104 E. 11th, 499-8833, www.historicvictorygrill.org) is reclaiming another aspect of its cultural heritage by opening a full-service cafe on Oct. 6. They plan to serve lunch, dinner, and late-night short orders to complement the tunes at the legendary East Austin music venue. We'll keep you posted on developments at these emerging spots. Meanwhile, the four places reviewed below are definitely worth a taste. – Virginia B. Wood

Eastside News
Photo by John Anderson

Stortini Ristorante

1917 Manor Rd., 391-9500
Monday-Friday, 11am-10pm; Saturday, 5-10pm; Sunday, 5-9pm

When Kristine Stortini Kittrell was growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the popular neighborhood ethnic eateries were known as "spaghetti bowls" – family restaurants run by Italian immigrants. Now that Kittrell is an Austin chef working with a successful Manor Road restaurant group, she has the opportunity to create a spaghetti bowl of her own. The Stortini menu is inspired by treasured recipes and flavors from the chef's Italian immigrant heritage. The ambience created by Joel Mozersky's interior design is warm and welcoming, the portions are generous, the wine list is small but well-chosen, and the prices for both food and wine are very reasonable. This appealing pasta house is a positive addition to the mix along the Manor Road restaurant row, and it has the potential to become a neighborhood mainstay.

Dinner starts with baskets of crusty Mandola's Italian bread and ramekins of the house spread – an earthy puree of white beans, roasted garlic, and lemon zest finished with the tongue-tingling zip of cracked red pepper. Appetizer offerings are so appealing and affordable, it's difficult to choose, but we settled on three and were amply rewarded. The House Sausage With Figs ($7) is a hearty treat where the sweet sautéed fruit slices in tangy balsamic syrup play a delightful counterpoint to the lean, spicy sausage against a backdrop of polenta triangles that are crisp on the outside and creamy within. The toothsome Mussels in Saffron Broth ($9) are succulent and satisfying, served with enough grilled toasts to sop up the luxurious saffron-scented white-wine broth. The delectable Formaggio ($8) offers a mild Texas chèvre cured with lemon zest and presented in a pool of rosemary honey with grilled toasts. We decided this dish would work every bit as well as a dessert option as it did a starter.

Dinner salads were the only misstep we noticed at Stortini on our first visit. Waterlogged greens in the Caesar salad ($4/6) were tossed with a thin, eggless dressing that was long on lemon juice and devoid of any bite of anchovy. The very delicate anise flavor of the shaved fennel salad ($4/6) was overwhelmed by strong red onions, and this mixture could have used a splash of acidity to brighten and balance the salad.

Things quickly got back on track with the arrival of our entrées, each an exemplary pasta dish. The Rigatoni With Parmesan Meatballs ($12) features rippled al dente pasta tubes bathed in the robust house Bolognese sauce paired with tender meatballs and a sprinkle of fresh mozzarella. This is a house signature dish of which Nonno Stortini could be justifiably proud. Equally delightful is the Rigatoni Coniglio ($13), a rustic farmhouse mixture of braised rabbit in a Dijon cream sauce that sticks to every ridge of the perfectly cooked noodles. Linguini con Shrimp Scampi ($13) is plump, sweet shrimp sautéed with cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs, and a sparkling dash of lemon. The Stortini menu regularly includes at least two filled pastas handmade in house, and we are eager to sample those on subsequent visits. We finished dinner with a sampling of pastry chef Alex Manley's impressive desserts. We suggest you go the traditional Italian route and perhaps indulge with Pistachio Gelato ($4) or the deeply flavored Forest Berry Sorbetto ($4). They offered the perfect light finish to our dinner – the first of which I'm sure there will be many.

Stortini has recently opened for lunch with a pared-down menu priced to entice neighborhood folks and 'Dillo-riding Downtown diners alike. At lunchtime, the appetizers, salads, and pastas are augmented by hot, hoagie-style sandwiches served on crusty Italian loaves ($6/7) with sides of excellent, crispy, fresh-cut fries ($2 extra). If the idea of an affordable family meal prepared in a style that recalls the cooking of someone's Italian grandparents is appealing, chef Kittrell and the friendly staff at Stortini invite you to join them. – V.B.W.

Eastside News
Photo by John Anderson

Hot Mama's Espresso Bar

2401 E. Sixth #104, 476-6262
Monday-Saturday, 7am-5pm

Though the actual indoor floor space at this quirky coffee shop is fairly small, the lovely tree-shaded patio just outside greatly expands Hot Mama's impact on the surrounding neighborhood. Customers can grab satisfying coffee drinks, some homemade pastries and breakfast tacos, and tasty Mediterranean specialties (courtesy of Ararat) and repair to the patio for pastoral relaxation. Savvy Hot Mama's owner Holly Skala knows an asset when she sees one, and she has plenty of big plans to utilize the patio's inherent appeal. "As soon as we get our beer and wine license, we can extend our evening hours and offer more events on weekend nights," she says. Plans include live music, movie nights, s'mores nights around the fire pit, an artists' market, a Halloween party, and a grand first anniversary reopening bash in early November. Keep an eye on Hot Mama's MySpace page (www.myspace.com/hotmamasespresso) for an announcement about the long-awaited beer and wine license, as well as program updates. – V.B.W.

Eastside News
Photo by John Anderson

Bossa Nova Bakery & Cafe

2121 E. Sixth #101, 478-8700
Monday-Friday, 6:30am-7pm; Saturday, 8am-6pm

When Roberval and Linda Auguiar won the U.S. visa lottery a few years back, they sold their bakeries in Goiânia, Brazil, and joined their daughter and son-in-law in Austin. Ray and Priscilla Shapley were soon eager to see the Auguiars back in the baking business, and now the two generations collaborate at Bossa Nova. The excellent coffees are imported from Brazil (by way of www.casabrasil.us) as are some of the specialized ingredients such as yucca flour and Brazilian peppers. Ray Shapley says the Bossa Nova menu is "inspired rather than dictated by Brazilian cuisine." They offer Brazilian pastries such as a very sweet corn cake and the macaroonlike yucca cake, as well as some American-style cookies and cupcakes. The menu features vegetable-packed "natural-style" sandwiches inspired by the healthy beach snacks popular in Rio de Janeiro and hot-pressed sandwiches with meats, cheeses, sliced eggs, and fresh vegetables, all served on bread made in-house. They also whip up the traditional Brazilian national dish, feijoada, with collard greens, orange slices, and farofa every Saturday to the delight of their growing Brazilian clientele. – V.B.W.

Blue Dahlia Bistro

1115 E. 11th, 512/542-9542, http://www.bluedahliabistro.com
Sun.-Tue., 9am-9pm; Wed-Sat., 9am-10pm
Eastside News
Photo by John Anderson

Blue Dahlia Bistro

1115 E. 11th, 542-9542


Monday-Friday, 8am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 10am-10pm

The Blue Dahlia is a 1946 Raymond Chandler film noir probably best remembered for the presence of Veronica Lake, she of the vampy peekaboo hairstyle. I don't know what the connection might be, but the Blue Dahlia Bistro has established a sexy little presence of its own – a bit French but mostly Austin – in the entertainment/business corridor developing along East 11th.

Replacing the archly hip Dandelion Cafe, the Blue Dahlia simultaneously manages to be sleekly cool and warmly welcoming, with beautifully polished plank tables, soft lighting (even during the day), tiny artful table arrangements, and a charming enclosed patio, lush with plants.

I'm no longer sure just what bistro means, but in this case it means a casual place to drop in, alone or with friends, for a specialty coffee, a pastry, and – except for a daily soup ($3.95) and a frittata ($5.25) – food that isn't "cooked," such as platters of cheeses and cold meats, salads, and open-faced French sandwiches called tartines.

There are 11 tartines offered ($6.25-7.95), and each one I've tried has been a simple but inspired combination of generous portions on very fresh bread (from Mandola's Italian Market) cut into manageable rectangles and beautifully presented on a rustic wooden platter. Chicken salad is paired with pine nuts, dried cranberries, and pesto. Thinly sliced rare-ish roast beef is nicely dressed with Dijon crème fraîche and capers. Brie comes with walnuts and apricot preserves, and the ricotta with figs, agave syrup, and black pepper is lovely. You get the idea.

The meal-portioned salads ($5.95-8.95) are served with a variety of Mandola's breads, and most have plenty of protein-rich components (garbanzos, shrimp and avocado, various cheeses, tuna or egg salads). While I have nothing against mesclun, it is used for five of the six salads, as well as garnish for the tartines and spécialité platters. I'd love to see some other locally grown fresh greens used; not only would the salads be more interesting, but they would fit nicely with the menu's admirable "Le Mission de Blue Dahlia," which addresses organic, local, environmental, and community support.

Continental-style breakfast (nothing over $5.95) is available all day, including croissants, pastries, brownies, sliced meats and cheeses, assorted breads and spreads, yogurts, and soft-boiled eggs. On my last visit, there were four desserts ($4.95) offered, all rife with butter and cream (not that there's anything wrong with that). The cream-filled berry tart on shortbread crust and the three-layered mousse were tasty but unexciting, nothing I'd walk a mile for (although I would for a tarte tatin or a pot du crème).

There's a variety of coffee drinks and nonalcoholic beverages. On a really hot day, I fell in love with the Fresh-Squeezed Muddled-Mint Lemonade ($2.95), although the pomegranate lemonade is almost as good. A solid selection of draft and bottled beers is available, mostly premium (with happy-hour prices from 4 to 7pm, Monday through Friday), and you can choose from a short list of wines ($6/glass, $18.95/bottle). Just two of the eight wines are French, and none is local; the rest range from Chile to California. – MM Pack

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