From College Hill to Federal Hill: that’s a giant leap in location for a restaurant to take. But if there’s one restaurant that can make this drastic change work, it’s the new Adesso on the Hill.
The original Adesso opened in 1987 on Cushing Street, just off Thayer. It was the go-to restaurant for folks connected to Brown and RISD, as well as East Side residents who loved the restaurant’s open kitchen, wood grill and greenhouse dining area. The cuisine was Cal-Ital, a trendy blend of California and Italian. The incredibly popular restaurant closed a few years ago when its rent skyrocketed, and fans never stopped reminiscing about Adesso.
The good news is that some of the classic Adesso recipes are still on the menu – most notably, the Wild and Domestic Mushrooms, sautéed with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, chopped fresh tomatoes, herbs and white wine, served over grilled crostini ($9). Other familiar dishes include the Belgian Endive Salad with sliced apple, blue cheese, walnuts and watercress ($9), Creste di Gallo with grilled chicken, Italian sausage, red and yellow peppers and tomatoes ($17), and Sesame-Crusted Tuna, grilled medium-rare, with fettuccine, vegetables and Asian flavors ($23).
The not-so-good news, at least for some people, is that the subdued Adesso of old has been replaced with a loud dining experience. In this brand new space, constructed where the Acorn Social Club existed for years, there is no sound-absorbing carpeting or drapes. Instead, there are gleaming hardwood floors and large arched windows. As one enters, the semiopen kitchen is straight ahead with a wide open bar and lounge area on the right and an even larger dining area to the left. The walls are painted to look like sunny Mediterranean stucco, and handsome Italianate lighting gives the restaurant a soft glow.
The wood grill of yesteryear is gone. In its place is a brick oven that produces wonderful pizza with a slightly chewy crust. Take the White Pizza ($12) for example. The six wedges are flavored with garlic-infused olive oil, mozzarella, parmigiano, slivers of red onion, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh chives and thyme, with a tangy goat cheese garnish. With an oversized glass of white wine in hand, our dinner was off to a good start.
A Warm Spinach Salad ($9) is a rare sight on most menus, so I order it every chance I get. At Adesso, it is more than enough for two people to share. Served on a stylish square platter, the slightly wilted baby spinach is showered with crisp pancetta bits, shallots, pine nuts and fresh thyme, all dressed in a blend of sherry vinegar and walnut oil. All it needed was a dash of salt.
As we savored every bite, I dipped into the bread basket for a bit of crust to sop up every bit of the salad. I had seen a waiter slicing up big golden loaves of Italian bread. I suspected, and later found out, that the bread was from Buono’s Bakery.
For the main course, you can choose from a large selection of pasta dishes ($10 to $22), which go from simple to sublime. The penne with tomato sauce has a hint of garlic and fresh basil. The black pepper linguine sports shrimp, asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes in a vodka-tomato cream sauce. The pappardelle is tempting with its sautéed strips of beef sirloin and portabello mushrooms in a sauce of merlot wine, veal stock and fresh herbs.
Entrees range from $19 to $34; we opted for the Duck Breast ($20) and the California Sirloin ($30). Both were presented beautifully. The boneless duck breast was exquisite, shingled across the plate with the skin left on and deliciously crunchy. The duck was fully coated with a syrupy sauce of dried cherries and port wine. I made sure there was a cherry or two on my every bite of duck. The menu said “pan roasted medium rare,” but I asked for it to be more on the medium side, and it was done exactly to my specifications. The menu also promised garlic mashed potatoes, but I could detect no garlic. Outside of that, the potatoes were fine, as were the small mountain of buttery haricot vert (slender green beans) on the plate.
The sirloin was a truly generous cut of tender beef, expertly trimmed so that the entire steak was edible. This piece of meat was good enough to stand on its own. The accompanying sauce, a blend of peppercorns and sour mash bourbon, enhanced this dish to a totally satisfying level. More of those respectable mashed potatoes and a colorful sauté of pea pods, yellow and red peppers rounded out the serving. Again, it was appreciated that some creative thought was given to the side of seasonal vegetables. Too many restaurants serve a bland medley of summer squash and zucchini.
A wonderful Italian dessert seemed like the right path to take after such a perfect dinner. We shared the unusual Torta Mascarpone ($8), and it was a very generous serving. Once again, the menu at Adesso offered something other than just the requisite tiramisu. The mascarpone cream cheese was rich and creamy. Sugar had been added, and could that be Marsala wine I was tasting? The sweet mousse was studded with chocolate chips and then topped with crushed amaretti cookies. What more could you ask for?