Review: Sorrento D'Italia

written by Bill Kopp

Here's the way my thinking goes: with all the culinary adventures to be found in downtown Asheville, if a restaurant is going to survive outside the city center, it has to be something special. So I was curious to learn more about Sorrento D'Italia Restaurant.

Sorrento is located in an unassuming building between the Thunderbird Motel and a used car dealership. The red, white and green streetside sign is easy to miss. Even finding the front door requires a bit of thought.

As my dining companion and I found our way inside on a bright, early afternoon, it took a few seconds for our eyes to adjust to Sorrento's dark interior. The bar sits directly in front of the entrance. We were greeted by the bartender and the lone server. Our server led us through a u-turn into a long, narrow room which functioned as the entire dining area, capacity about 44 persons. As we sat down, my companion asked me, in jest, "is this a single-wide?" But within no more than a moment, our attitudes began to change. The place in fact had a classy, warm, friendly ambiance to it.

Our server seated us and began to explain a few things about the menu of the day. At Sorrento, the chef makes pasta fresh daily; today's pasta would be linguine. Due to a large and hungry crowd the preceding evening, a few of the more popular dishes were unavailable. We began a look at the menu.

Meanwhile, our server made note of the glass carafe at our table. Each table in the restaurant had one like it, filled nearly to the top with red wine. Our waiter explained that this was the homemade house wine, from grapes on the family vineyard. This Sangiovese was, we learned, made from organic grapes. As is Sorrento's custom, we were each given a partial glass "on the house," and invited to have more as we wished. It was a light wine with plenty of character, yet it tasted especially "fresh." We would later be delighted to find that we were charged only $5.50 each (for a few glasses each), an unparalleled value.

This evening the antipasto plate for two -- part of every Sorrento meal -- included fire-roasted peppers; lightly seasoned meatballs; a few calamata olives; a few forkfulls of vinegary three-bean salad; and a bit of tuna. A fresh, crusty Tuscan bread was also served, with herbed butter on the side.

Eventually we did make choices from the menu. I chose a capellini with walnut sauce featuring three types of cheeses, plus freshly toasted walnuts, roasted garlic and roasted red peppers. My dining companion made a choice, and the waiter whisked off to the kitchen. He appeared again shortly thereafter to inform us that that, too was out this evening, as were crab meat for the trout dish; trout itself; and lobster for the ravioli. In light of the shortages my companion made a second choice of Asparagus Gamberetti Primavera. This featured crisp fresh asparagus with sun-dried tomatoes and truffle oil, sauteed with gulf shrimp.

Our mouths had watered at the description of the house salad dressing, a concoction of raspberries, blood oranges and grapefruit, but our hopes were dashed upon learning that too was unavailable. Instead we chose a house salad with homemade dressing featuring gorgonzola cheese. It was full of flavor and excellent.

All lingering traces of disappointment faded away upon being served our main courses. The high quality of the food made the shortages seems insignificant. Highlights included the perfectly al dente pasta; the spot-on cooking of the asparagus and my friend's shrimp. Gulf shrimp are succulent when cooked properly, but turn rubbery if cooked even a few seconds too long. These were delicious. My walnut sauce was full of flavor yet not at all heavy.

We considered skipping dessert, but our server let us know that the chef's mother prepared the mascarpone cheese and ladyfingers used in Sorrento's tiramisu. We decided to give it a try, and were immediately pleased with our decision. The tiramisu was light and airy, flavorful but not overpowering.

The chef's mom (B.L. Jabari, graduate of Accadeia Cuisine Milano) stopped by our table to welcome us; she also made her way to the other two occupied tables, visiting briefly there as well. We learned that all fruits and vegetables at Sorrento are organic, and that all meats served are free-range and hormone free.

With tip, our meal totaled just under $58. Our excursion to the geographical outer limits of Asheville dining had been well worth the trip, and my original thesis had been correct: for a place to survive more than a decade outside of the hubbub of downtown Asheville, it would have to be of a superior quality. Sorrento does indeed deserve that appellation.

© 2006.

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