Flavor: Italian-style pastas, meats and cheeses
Ambiance: Simple and restrained, just like the food
It’s back-to-school season, which means mothers everywhere are shipping their little scholars off to college for the first time with the confident prediction “You’ll miss me when you’re gone.” And, undoubtedly, they will. Because as loathe as late-stage adolescents may be to admit it, Hollywood’s been right about this particular phenomenon since it whisked away Dorothy in a rumbling funnel cloud: Sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate what you have there.
An example: I had to go to Hendersonville to understand the perpetual fuss over La Caterina Trattoria, the downtown Asheville stalwart that’s continued to wow diners since it relocated from Pack Square to a spot next to the Merrimon Avenue I-240 exit in 2004. My journey was a short one: A quick 20-minute drive southward from Asheville down an unusually open stretch of I-26, and a jog over to Main Street, where La Caterina’s owners, Victor and Robbin Giancola, recently opened their newest restaurant, Potenza.
La Caterina’s approach is appealing to anyone who’s infatuated with good food: The restaurant’s Web site is like a Sirens’ island for dedicated eaters, suffused with tantalizing culinary catchphrases like “honesty,” “simplicity,” “unpretentious” and “rigorously opposed to processed, synthetic and mass produced food.” The site further promises fresh pastas, in-house cured meats and locally grown produce. For foodies, that’s not a menu: It’s a mandate. It’s no wonder travel writers from the Washington Post, New York Times and Greensboro’s News & Record—whose reviewer pronounced La Caterina’s antipasti “one of the most distinctive dishes I have encountered in a North Carolina restaurant”—have made a pilgrimage there.
Given La Caterina’s reputation, expectations for Potenza are understandably high. The new restaurant, which sports a slightly trimmed version of La Caterina’s menu, is making some very solid, homespun food, and serving it with a fresh-faced enthusiasm. While none of the dishes I tried vaulted into the spectacular category, all of them were inarguably “honest,” “simple,” “unpretentious” and “rigorously opposed to processed, synthetic and mass produced food.” And most of them were quite good.
Like the menu, Potenza’s interior is a pared down version of La Caterina’s model. The divided room is spare, with very little changed since the building housed the popular Gypsy Cab Company—even the wooden chairs and tables, adorned with nothing more than folded paper napkins and salt and pepper shakers, are the same. But, as at La Caterina, art is an integral part of the decor, with vibrant paintings of anthropomorphized cows doing crazy things lining the brick walls.
The art is sometimes bolder than much of the food, which goes easy on the seasoning. Potenza seems to shy away from spice in even the smallest doses. “We have a special with cherry peppers,” one server told our table, “but those cherry peppers are optional.” (Cherry peppers score about 3,000 on the Scoville scale—a measure of “hotness”—putting them in a league with anchos and paprika.)
A jolt of heat would have helped two of the appetizers: A grilled-calamari steak, which, while cooked to perfection, was bogged down by bland cannelloni beans that functioned as a pedestal for the sweet squid. And a small dish of gnocchi saturated with Gorgonzola cream was regrettably short on flavor; under a blanket of sauce, the potato-packed pastas were almost indistinguishable from the diced green tomatoes that shared the plate.
At the same time, the seasoning on the eggplant rolls was stellar, with the smokiness of the grilled vegetable harmonizing beautifully with the high-quality goat cheese and fresh basil. If eggplants didn’t make my tongue swell up to twice its size, I could have eaten a dozen. Even with my annoying allergy, I was willing to take the risk of eating two, but my dinner companions polished off the plate while I was weighing the joys of melanzane involtini against the agonies of an urgent-care trip. (Best to act fast if you’re eating with friends at Potenza, as the portions border on petite.)
I consoled myself by ordering the biggest salad on the menu, a plate of greens ringed by wafer-thin slices of wine-cured, air-dried beef. The advertised horseradish vinaigrette was a mite too reticent for my taste, but the leathery beef—probably the nearest thing to jerky this dried-meat aficionado is ever likely to find on a menu—was terrific, and matched well with the Argiolas Costera capably selected by our server. Other salads, including a Caesar soaked with garlicky dressing, mixed greens studded with Gorgonzola and a traditional caprese, were ennobled by top-notch cheeses.
The housemade mozzarella reappeared in Potenza’s signature lasagna, a rendition that restored my faith in the dish. The meatless lasagna was wonderfully subtle, with thin sheets of cheese alternating with flavorful partitions of pasta. The only setback was the marinara, which could have used slightly more kick. A delicate spaghetti with meatballs was almost as good.
Potenza prides itself on its housemade sausage, and features a different preparation each day. The salsicce I sampled skewed far-northern Italian—perhaps as far north as Germany. Thick with fennel, the heavily grilled meat didn’t sound any recognizable Italian notes, although it was delicious when dunked in the lasagna’s marinara sauce.
My favorite menu item at Potenza isn’t really a menu item at all; it’s the chewy grano that appears alongside the kitchen’s take on Sunburst trout. The fish itself tastes somewhat overripe with hazelnuts, but the hearty grano is an unmitigated delight. It realizes all the potential La Caterina has long exhibited, and reminded me that it’s time to head back to the Asheville restaurant that preceded Potenza.