Restaurant Review: Italic
New comfort for a changing Austin
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., July 3, 2015
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10:30pm; Fri., 11am-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 5-10:30pm
Italian food in Austin is having a moment, hot on the heels of last year's Southern garde. As cuisines, they are bedfellows, rightly or wrongly filed under the vague header of "comfort." While fat and salt are not unique to either tradition, we still ascribe mystical powers to tumbling piles of meatballs. That Austin is seeking that sort of solace in the shadows of its permanently looming cranes is as good an indication as any that even those who can afford it aren't quite settled with what Austin has become.
Of course, it is also telling how a changing Austin has interpreted the "concept" of comfort. Like many restaurants in the freshman class, ELM Group's Italic is the comfort found in Oprah's Favorite Things. The menu speaks the language – there's roasted chicken, pizza, minestrone, and steak – insisting that Italic is a "rustic Italian restaurant." But that steak is a $75 indulgence. And the interior doesn't so much say "come in and stay awhile" as "look at me, look at me!"
The stagy dining room is crosshatched with hard edges, including a hanging glass wine cellar. And although acoustical panels are scattered across the high ceiling, it wasn't quite enough to keep sound at conversational levels. At peak roar, it was difficult to hear the server. For a dinner visit, we were seated on high metal banquettes near the bar. With the air conditioner blasting, only the cocktails – we had a bright limoncello martini and the Confession, an inspired amaro twist on the margarita (both $8) – kept us from frostbite.
Thankfully, easy conviviality returned once the food came out. Italic does deliver rusticity with its simple but well-balanced flavors. Here a simple heirloom tomato salad ($8) can dazzle with torn basil and arugula (more on that later). Simply seared calamari ($12) delivers with endive, olives, and celery leaf (a very welcome mini-trend). Perfectly fried rabbit loin, served on a bed of arugula, had all the ease of chicken-fried steak, brightened by black cherry. Even the shared contorni, green beans and rainbow carrots ($6 per), said Sunday supper.
And then there's the pasta.
That the richer pasta dishes stood out was no surprise considering the combined carb and fat content of the menus at Easy Tiger, 24 Diner, and Arro. The hefty slab of lasagna ($14) was a Garfield fever dream, blistering with cheese and enriched by soppressata. The fregola ($12), a pasta shape similar to Israeli couscous, mostly eschewed heavier proteins for cockles, but still had a clinging slick of oil and prosciutto. There, a spritz of lemon and spring onion kept the dish from being bogged down. For dinner, the beef and pork penne Bolognese (we ordered the $11 smaller portion) layered a dense ragù with shaved Parmesan and mint. It's offered for lunch too, but we only recommend that for lotus-eaters.
Over the course of three visits, every server recommended the burrata ($14). Italic's version paired the cheese with peak season Fredericksburg peaches, roasted hazelnuts, and (surprise) arugula, a combo that cut through the lavish panna. Although the rustic Easy Tiger bread served alongside was predictably well-crafted, we abandoned early for fear of ruining our appetites (a concern that did not prevent us from finishing the dish in spoonfuls). The Prosciutto di San Daniele ($18) was universally praised too, a testament to chef Andrew Curren's sure sourcing. We got a little chuckle, however, after one of the servers emphasized it as being "house-sliced."
Of the heavier dishes, only the goat cheese baked penne ($14) disappointed. Its place on the menu was understandable – not everyone wants the more assertive flavors of chile, fennel, or Italian sausage – but it still needed a little bit of oomph (and perhaps a splash of pasta water). We also did not quite know what to make of the Carolina white shrimp ($26). The fennel fronds lent a faint licorice that did not fully work with the rest of the flavors. A calmer mix might have let the classic seafood pairing shine. And the pork leg ($23) was underseasoned and a bit tough. But, rest assured, the heights are more memorable than the depths.
And it is difficult to not leave Italic smiling when pastry chef Mary Catherine Curren can whip up a dessert like the chocolate budino ($7) – proving the proof really is in the pudding. We paired that with a citrusy mascarpone gelato ($2) that can compete with any gelateria in town. And frankly, we would return to Italic even if we were deeply ambivalent about everything on the menu. The service at Italic sets a new bar. It's watchful without being obtrusive, friendly without being cloying, and knowledgeable without knowing-it-all – a rarity in Austin. A few more sound dampeners and some upholstery would be welcome, but maybe Italic does know what comfort means after all.
Italic123 W. Sixth, 512/660-5390
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10:30pm; Fri., 11am-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm;Sun., 5-10:30pm