Stagioni is, by design, a shifting concept, adapting to each season’s foodstuffs – and to a Charlotte market mostly unaccustomed to unpredictable menus and wait-that-dish-I-loved-is-gone?
And a work in progress it remains, since opening in January. The upshot is that the place, whose name means “seasons,” offers up an oft-shifting Italian lineup in varying degrees of familiarity to diners, with increasingly more daring (pig tails! tripe!) – but also with unevenness, decided hits and misses.
It’s at its best when it luxuriates: Appropriate, in the Tuscan Revival villa that tiny red-haired Blanche Reynolds Gourmajenko built in the mid ’20s, and where she threw lavish parties (when she wasn’t driving the Daimler around town, with Russian second husband, and Dalmatians in the back seat, according to some recollections).
A taste of that kind of richness: housemade ricotta, a truffled cauliflower spread, perhaps a special of pork liver terrina, spread thickly on toasted housemade bread, with cherry mostarda: Think pate made airier, with an Italian sort of jam of cherries and mustard seed. Lush.
There’s gnocchi, the little dumplings toothsome and glossed with a pork sugo (sauce); and pasta specials, maybe wide lengths of pappardelle with generous shavings of summer truffle. There’s tender baby octopus over perfect chickpeas, sparked with basil.
There are slabs of Heritage Farms pork chop, cut off the bones (but you still get them, should gnawing be a pastime), accompanied at least one night with summer beans, braised peanuts and maitake mushrooms (think hen-of-the-woods).
These seem simple, but have some intricacy: well-developed flavors, as in the sugo, or sprightly combination, as in the cherry-fueled, mustard-spiked terrina, or a tomato salad with ricotta and watermelon to soften the bite of arugula. And good pasta’s always intricate. Here, the kitchen makes all categories: cut, extruded and filled.
(Note that all mentioned dishes might well be re-imagined, tinkered with or gone on your visit. That’s both the point and challenge of seasonality.)
Where Stagioni went awry on our visits was with more basic fare: A small piece of grouper cooked considerably past juicy, its exterior toughened – though its accompaniments (slew of tomatoes, bits of olive) were nice. A piece of salmon even further gone, dry all the way through. And the same octopus dish, this time chewy, and chickpeas hard. Bread might arrive, in a little paper packet, warm and irresistible – or cold, and not.
We had one exception in each category: An intricate quail dish lost its delicacy to boudin stuffing, while exceedingly basic fried clams were perfect, graced with just a few parsley leaves.
Stylishly groomed servers manage the impossible: They explain (they must say, brightly, “ ‘Sputini’ are snacks, and ‘antipasto’ is soups and salads and appetizers!” 12 times a night). They mitigate (we heard diners pout unpleasantly when dishes weren’t available). And they clean (we watched a couple walk away casually from a table their child had trashed; it glistened in minutes). They know prep details and artfully slip among the tightly spaced tables. Still, seating at the bar, looking into the kitchen, remains impossibly jammed.
That spacing makes the place, when full, either lively or incredibly loud, depending on how you feel about dinner conversation. But go early or late, when you have some breathing room, and the whole place feels different: The red light fixtures look whimsical, not hard; you can hear your companions; you can peruse the multitude of books, recalling those so loved by Blanche that she’d sometimes hole herself up to read, refusing to answer the door.
At least that’s what Bruce Moffett has been told. Moffett, whose circa-2000 Barrington’s remains among the city’s most revered, long-successful places, and whose Good Food on Montford helped propel a mini-renaissance of creativity around town, says he’s still learning to juggle a trio of places, and has had chef changes among the three. But he says he feels confident they’re on the right track. “It’s been a challenge ... exciting, entertaining, scary. At this point, I have the perfect people in place for what it is I want to do.” He’s “pleasantly surprised” that diners are showing interest in dishes like crispy pig tail (rolled into medallions and fried) and tripe (he’s considering an offal special of the week, all you fans of organ meat).
It was his instinct to do an Italian restaurant to suit the Villa space, and his appreciation for its history reveals itself in marvelous quirks, from a secret office entrance mimicking Blanche’s hidden liquor room’s to the historical-Paris-wedding-photo-turned-ceiling (can you find the a-la-“Shining” Jack Nicholson?).
Moffett’s done well by this town. I expect he’ll straighten this out, and Blanche will applaud the push.