Flavor: Meats and cheeses the way Northern Italians like ‘em
Ambiance: Warm and quiet, like a seat by the hearth
Word is a few of the first customers to patronize Sugo, the ambitious Italian-inspired eatery that opened this summer in downtown Asheville, didn’t quite get owners Damien and Lindsay Cavicchi’s grand vision for a restaurant specializing in slow-cooked food prepared with a gentle hand. They were without the pan-fried proteins and red sauce that anchor most Italian-American menus.
That’s a shame, since there’s so much to like at Sugo. There are winning items scattered all about the extensive menu, which leans toward burly cuts of meats and warming wintry pastas. But those elements could easily escape notice by the eater intent on filing a straight-up order for three courses and passively awaiting an edible thrill. That’s because Sugo often plates its best offerings with some of its less memorable ones: Phenomenally good housemade sausage, for example, is detracted from by a clump of bottled roasted red peppers. A lovely fresh fettucine is nearly felled by a sugary sweet wild-boar preparation pairing sweet peppers with cherries.
But with parts this good, it’s worth working toward a better whole. And so the onus is on the diner to plunder various dishes for the stand-out components that elevate Sugo from just another Italian restaurant to an experience worth having. Here’s how it’s done.
Romantic Evening, Sugo-style
If the quiet that reigns nightly at Sugo is a result of too few filled tables, I’m rooting for customer chatter to take over soon. But my hunch is the hushed atmosphere is a deliberate contrivance, and one that puts the restaurant in the running for downtown’s most romantic destination.
Sugo’s passion-inflected decor features windowless, cabernet-red walls and a series of spindly chandeliers. The soundtrack is usually set to jazz, played at a low enough volume that diners on the woo don’t have to scream their sweet nothings. Still, it takes more than the right shade of paint and Donald Byrd grooves to put folks in the mood for love: As any frustrated anniversary celebrant can attest, a gruff server or a clumsy busser can spoil even the most carefully cultivated romantic ambiance.
Yet Sugo shines on the service front. Even when I visited late in the evening, when tired staffers were surely yearning to go home, the hostess greeted me so warmly I wondered whether we were related. Our server (I had the same one on both visits) was knowledgeable about the menu and—even more impressively—willing to head back to the kitchen with questions when he wasn’t. He apparently saw me arch an eyebrow over a pistachio parfait inexplicably served with an acidic hot toddy, since the item was removed from our bill before I’d even decided whether the dessert merited a recommendation.
Service was so attentive and prompt that I began to wonder whether I’d been outed. But it’s worth noting that other restaurants where someone may have had an inkling of what I was doing haven’t been nearly so eager to please. Sugo’s acknowledgement that service matters surely applies to critics and non-critics alike.
And what might a couple swept up by the restaurant’s romantic vibe order from their skilled server? There are nearly a dozen shareable appetizers on Sugo’s menu, many of which fare better in theory than practice. The sweetbreads, garnished with crunchy niblets of corn and soaked in a rich demi-glace, were tough and short on flavor when I tried them. Baby octopi and artichoke hearts, the centerpieces of two different starters, were both scarred by spending too much time on the grill. Better to skip those appetizers and ask for an antipasti salad—a pinwheel of pork that outclassed all the entrees I sampled at Sugo.
The antipasti platter features generous slices of cured meats—some of them house-made—including bresaole, pancetta and salami, a few hunks of fresh mozzarella and green olives. It’s wonderful. The salami, among them a duck proscuttio the color of dried blood, are uniformly rich and meaty, with a clean taste that bespeaks a producer brave enough to lay off the salt. Taken with a glass of wine (best bought by the bottle, especially on Tuesday, when Sugo offers all its under-$40 wines at half-off), it’s an absolutely delicious dinner.
Hunter’s Supper, Sugoese
Pasta isn’t easy to do, as Sugo’s recitation sometimes proves. Of the three pasta dishes I tried—a ravioli, angnoloti and fettuccini—only the fettucini immediately offered up the delicate flavor of good, fresh noodles. The other two pastas, which may have been equally well made, were undermined by undercooking.
Meat isn’t always easy either, but Sugo does a beautiful job with it. It’s a terrific restaurant in which to assert one’s carnivorousness, hopscotching from the garlicky, fennel-studded sausage appetizer to a smoky grilled hangar steak. The huskier the cut, the better: Sugo excels in Yuletide flavors, turning out rustic meats that taste like what you might hope to find on your plate after a day spent trekking through the Black Forest.
All-American Meal, a la Sugo
The slider has lately migrated from cocktail party menus to sit-down restaurants, and Sugo’s taken full advantage of the fad. The appetizer menu features a little lamb burger smeared with dijon mustard and capped with a salty house-made pickle. The lamb is gorgeously juicy, and melds nicely with the added slab of mozzarella.
The menu suggests one slider for $6, or two for $10. I suggest four sliders with a side of pommes frites. The frites, typically served with the steak, are admirably crisped with creamy white interiors. I’m convinced this little plate could be the best burger-and-fries combo in downtown Asheville.
It can be easy to be diverted at Sugo by what I’m hoping are rookie mistakes. But, judging from the elements already in place, it shouldn’t be long before the restaurant’s flying-pig insignia really takes off.