Hyped, but still hip, Italian

It’s not common to see pasta nero on a restaurant menu. Those not in the know will likely stop reading at “squid ink.” And nero means black — usually a turn-off for food.

So I was pleased to see fettuccine nero offered at Mezzo, a good two-year-old restaurant in the center of the Via Italia, Windsor’s Erie Street Italian strip.

The first time I ate this dish was at the house of a Singer sewing machine salesman in Bari, near the heel of the Italian boot. My boyfriend and I were hitching north, and this kind gentleman picked us up and took us home. His young wife made us the local specialty, which they called “spaghetti col nero.” It was dark gray and had a warm rich taste of the sea. I don’t remember any additional ingredients, just the slithery gray spaghetti that was exactly the comfort food two impoverished travelers needed.

It’s hard to measure up to a memory like that one, but Mezzo actually goes one better, adding shrimp, calamari and a fresh tomato sauce.

Mezzo’s menu claims the place is “the ultimate trendsetter … stylish, fashion-forward.” Are you allowed to declare yourself a trendsetter? If you take the restaurant’s own descriptions seriously, it’s trying to be all things to all people: “chic yet comfortable,” “upscale casual,” “an ideal choice for romantic occasions … or corporate functions.” Come on, guys — which is it, footsy under the table or power lunch?

Despite the contradictions, Mezzo is stylish. Long tables for big parties and mirrors over the swooping lines of the banquettes convey an oval theme. It has the same sort of feel as Porcino, another Windsor Italian place with an ambitious menu and a minimalist decor. No red-checked tablecloths here.

Prices are steep if you’re Canadian, but more bearable for us Yanks.

The ambitious food varies from pretty good to great. It starts with a thoughtful touch, a “tasting” of a complimentary morsel from the chef to begin the meal. Both Saturdays that I visited, the tasting was a gussied-up salmon tartare, delicious and gone all too soon.

For a starter, I cannot speak highly enough of the chef’s wild mushroom soup, a puree of portobello, porcini and oyster mushrooms. It would have been an intense enough experience served plain, but he added a swirl of a white truffle and port reduction, and a sweet-potato croquette, both of which kept popping up as sweet surprises.

Almost as wonderful was the cold antipasto misto, a mixed antipasto. It included the most flavor-packed roasted peppers and tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.

Or you may want to splurge on foie gras (about $11 U.S.). It was a little more liver-y than the smoothest foie gras, but still fine.

I was disappointed in the seafood bisque, which, though made with lobster and shrimp, had more of a generic seafood taste. (By the way, for lobster fans, the chef says that penne topped with a baked lobster tail is his biggest seller.)

Lobster appears paired with crab in the housemade ravioli. It was sweet with a fall feel to the Pernod-flavored sauce. You could swear there was pumpkin involved.

Whole-wheat pasta is not typical on Italian menus. Frankly, combined with salmon, spinach and tomatoes, I didn’t really notice the heartier taste of the spaghetti here. The slightly coarser texture added interest and heft, making this a fine if not stellar dish.

I was less pleased with my veal cutlets in a brandy cream sauce. The cutlets were far too redolent of rosemary, and a big twig of the herb sat on top to drive the point home.

For dessert, I chose an order of the three crème brûlées — vanilla, a candy-like kiwi and, the best, a rich mango.

The menu writer went overboard again with the wine descriptions — the kind of silliness that gives wine aficionados a bad name. My pinot grigio was said to have a bouquet “typical of light bread crust.” Now, would that be regular bread, or toasted? Whole wheat or rye?

Ignore the hype, and simply enjoy your dinner.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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