Asti , and it's sibling FINO are owned by local chefs/restauranteurs Emmett and Lisa Fox. They first hired local chef Jason Donoho as a Sous Chef for Asti; he soon moved to FINO, and quickly earned the Executive Chef title. He's now Executive of both spots, splitting his time between the two and elevating the menu at Asti as he goes. Formally known as Asti Trattoria, it's an Italian place in Hyde Park with a focus on clean, simple, seasonal food. The interior has a sleek modern feel, but still a neighborhood comfort spot. There's a small bar area, and the open-air kitchen is there for all to see what's on the stove. The Chef was not at Asti last night, so it was a good test to see what his kitchen could accomplish without him there.
My evening was spent with two dear friends whom I haven't seen in ages. We are all food people, so our evening at was spent laughing and going "mmmmmm" over all of the food. We shared everything, and experienced friendly, attentive, but unobtrusive service throughout the meal.
Things started with vermouth cocktails; a combo of sweet and dry vermouths, club soda, with an orange twist on the rocks. Yum! Asti does not serve spirits, but I don't think they need to if they can come up with nice vermouth drinks. I am not a big vermouth drinker, but in my book, it complimented everything we ate.
First up food-wise was a white bean puree on a crostini; velvety smooth, it practically melted in your mouth. Next up was the suppli, rice balls with mozzarella in them, rolled in breadcrumbs & fried; these were served with a spicy tomato sauce, large flakes of parmesan, and fried basil leaves. I am well-familiar with the suppli at Enoteca, which are more creamy; these had a really great crunchy crust on them, and the tomato sauce was very vibrant.
The lamb pie (pizza) was next. As I have written before, I love lamb, so for me, it could have used a touch more lamb in place of some of the bountiful black olives. But it was delicious. Their crust was crisp on the bottom, with a touch of cornmeal or semolina, and the edges of the pizza still nicely chewy. It went nicely too with the infused olive oil (fennel & sundried tomatoes) they had brought with foccacia bread. The lamb itself was pieces from the leg or shoulder, that were slightly crisp on the outer part, but still tender.
The seared scallops with handmade pasta followed. A regular order has 3 large scallops; they split the dish amongst 3 plates, so we each had our own extremely tender pasta on the bottom, the most perfectly seared scallop ever, scallions, a touch of lemon, and a hint of truffle butter. Called mandilli pasta (not a pasta style I am familiar with), it's something between an extremely wide papparadelle noodle and a long, ribbony sheet of pasta. All the flavors balanced each other perfectly.
Two side dishes arrived with the scallops, the Swiss chard with pine nuts & currants, and large white beans with guanciale (like panchetta), both well done, and the chard certainly adding a nice pop of green color. Lastly, we had the butternut squash risotto with brown butter, chestnuts & fried sage. The kitchen also split this 3 ways for us. This was the only dish that faltered a little; the risotto was underdone, so it was a bit more crunchy than creamy, but the flavors all together were fantastic. What's not to like about butternut squash and sage with a toasty butter sauce?
Okay, so we weren't totally done. There was a tiny bit of room left for the Affugato with beignets. The concept of affugato is a small cup of vanilla gelato and a separate cup of hot espresso that you pour over the gelato so it gets all melty. You then dunk your beignet into the warm espresso sauce. (I guess I'd consider it more a donut because it was round with a hole in it, whereas I think of a beignet as square. Semantics for fried goodness!)Now we were stuffed, and pretty much rolled on out of there. We had arrived at 6:30pm, and not long after, all the tables were filled, and people were waiting it out. Not bad for a neighborhood place that's been there for 9 years. And I would happily go back for lunch or dinner.
Confession time: my dining companions are the mother and aunt of Chef Donoho. In his absence, we were treated royally, but it appeared that the tables around us were getting fabulous service and food as well. My friends are extremely proud of the work Jason has done, and he should be proud of his staff who executed everything to almost near perfection.