“I haven’t tasted an actual tomato,” said the 10-year-old girl at my group’s table at Ever Andalo one night when I asked her for her tasting notes.
I so rarely eat with people that I valued the chance to hear a new, precocious perspective.
We were in NoDa at the new, awkwardly named Little Engine That Is Trying Very Hard from local restaurateurs Jeff Tonidandel and Jamie Brown, perusing a menu that wanted very much to let everyone know THE FOOD HERE IS ITALIAN.
Nonplussed, the girl disregarded the menu and asked for a plate of pasta with marinara sauce.
The dish looked proper enough when it arrived at our table, at least from my perspective, perched far enough away lest this child start throwing a tantrum. A crinkled nose is never a good sign, and worse yet, she paused and tilted her head as though trying to work out the puzzle in front of her.
“May I have a taste?” I leaned in for a small forkful. All I could taste was butter. Why was the sauce red? And where was the salt?
“What do you think of the taste?” I asked.
“I haven’t tasted an actual tomato.”
And just like that, on a warm early summer evening, at a table with adults four times her age, this little girl hit on what can only be called The Curse of North Davidson.
I don’t think I was the only one who was shocked upon hearing that Tonidandel and Brown would close down Crêpe Cellar, that beloved anachronistic little nugget of a bistro, to make way for a shiny new Italian restaurant — mere footsteps from the cursed Orto, at that.
Was I the only one who remembered the tragedies that unfolded there? What did these two have up their sleeve?
What was poised to become a battle of the bucatini, though, never came to be. Orto closed, to the absolute surprise of no one who ate there, and Ever Andalo opened unchallenged. Victory, therefore, was automatically theirs. Right?
Hold the telefono; on my first visit a month or so after they opened, I took one look at a fried artichoke — not the twee, sweet hearts, mind you, but the entire friggin’ vegetable, poised on the plate as though it were ready to mate with a small rabbit — and thought, “You have got to be kidding me.”
Then I tasted it and confronted my worst fears.
Putting aside the obscene acts required to actually fit the thing into my mouth, it tasted not of artichoke but rather of any run-of-the-mill, nondescript fried thing. Lemon aioli served alongside could have helped; I desperately needed some acid to clear away the oil film on my tongue. But its flavor was distracting, less lemon than Lemonhead candies.
My worst fears were that Ever Andalo would go the way of Orto, where the food evoked the memories of an imaginary trip to Italy spent eating at tourist traps instead of embracing the true essence of Italian cuisine and its unadorned simplicity. The artichokes and candy lemon cream did nothing to allay those fears, but the octopus has come close.
Like many of the dishes on the menu, the octopus features both versions of this Italy, and it’s only a matter of luck which one wins.
I’ve been told that octopus is Executive Chef Corey Owen’s favorite thing to cook — so much so that he has a tattoo of the beast on his arm. Don’t they say that passion is a key ingredient in Italian cooking? From something like plush velvet on my first visit, to perhaps a touch too crisp on the next, to finally a lovingly charred thing of beauty that it was on my last, Chef Owen’s octopus has evolved into the kind of Italian cooking for which I know Ever Andalo is aiming to create.
The chunky, saucy accouterments served with it, on the other hand, are very much the opposite. This is the Fake Italy — an Italy of ingredients mixed together and over-reduced into a cloying sludge, where sun-dried tomatoes have no personality and where sins are covered up with several mean squirts of lemon.
Does the Real Italy even stand a chance? The porchetta has been my favorite thing on the menu, reminiscent as it is of the pork can-can at Tonidandel and Brown’s hit Supperland. Crisp, fatty, and stuffed with mortadella sausage and raisins, it’s worked well to fend off the ill intentions of the candied, roasted apricots underneath, which, to be fair, have over time transitioned into something a little more subtle, a little more savory, and a lot more representative of what Italian cooking is meant to be.
Which brings us to the pasta.
“This pasta is so mushy,” the 10-year-old girl said, pointing to those buttery, unseasoned strands on her plate, her puzzled look unwavering.
“That’s because it sat in the water for too long.”
As has most of the pasta at Ever Andalo, it seems, except for when it hasn’t. I have yet to find anything in between.
The first time I had the Spaghettini al Nerano, I was genuinely disturbed at how congealed it was, like a fleshy water balloon that someone had sneezed on. The texture was off putting, but the pure, unadulterated zucchini flavor was glorious.
The second time, two months later, was worse — still congealed, and the zucchini had disappeared, replaced by something unholy, unflavored, and grimy. (To our server’s credit that night, she quickly whisked it far, far away from our table.)
Mushroom tortelloni had the opposite problem. It was aggressively al dente, but bless the hand that made that porcini cream. The night I had it, there was a whiff of truffles that made the whole thing so earthy and intoxicating that even tortelloni edges so firm they were crisp could not wake it up from its umami stupor. It would have made my Italian grandmother, if I had one, cry blissful tears.
But then what place do Lemonheads have in an Italian restaurant, anyway? I mean, really. Again? I was so excited once to see a robust, quivering dish of rotund cavatelli appear in front of me, each shell coated in a hearty, glossy sausage and tomato sauce, that I wanted to cry when all I got on the palate was lemon, lemon, and more lemon, followed by an unattractively sweet aftertaste.
Finally, if I do have one piece of advice, it is that guanciale should be used sparingly, like an expensive perfume, not as the main protein in a dish. The Fettuccine all’Amatriciana here deserves better than K.O. by sodium.
“We finally found the salt!” someone at my table quipped. Only the 10-year-old laughed.
The silver linings
Not all is fraught, however. Despite what the 10-year-old might say, dessert at Ever Andalo is pure joy.
Chef Liana Sinclair once again is here to show why she is the best pastry chef in town. The recipes are all hers, but she has taken a step back this time and is not always in the kitchen to oversee her team of pastry cooks. (She still has pies to make at Supperland.) Her absence is sometimes evident, in fact, in the sourdough focaccia bread, which when I’ve had it, is almost raw in the center, as though her cook weren’t following the recipes to a T.
Other times, it’s her absence that makes my heart grow fonder.
Chef Sinclair’s cannoli is the most objectively perfect version of that Italian pastry staple to ever bless a table in Charlotte. It is a crisp paragon of simplicity, of the very best of what Italian cuisine can be, and it’s stuffed with a cream that will make you go “Oooh.”
She clearly got what Tonidandel and Brown had in mind for Ever Andalo, if not everyone else in the kitchen.
It’s a shame I had to share mine with the 10-year-old. She took one bite and crinkled her nose again.
“I don’t do Twinkies,” she said.
“Well, I don’t do dinners with children, and yet here we are.”
I’m kidding. I didn’t say that. Instead, I rallied to the cannoli’s defense, as much as I could anyway, because how can you really go at a 10-year-old who’s just telling you what she thinks?
The end result
And this is what I think:
They say that birds flock before a storm, which is maybe why on every visit I’ve made thus far to Ever Andalo, as I’ve sat admiring the birds on the wallpaper that decorate the restaurant, I’ve thought they seem to be flying so quickly away.
Is it possible for an Italian restaurant to survive in NoDa? Has North Davidson been cursed?
Ever Andalo really can be a fine restaurant, I suppose, though at the moment, it tries too hard and is letting itself be ruled by a coin toss that often comes up Fake Italy.
If there’s one guaranteed way in the short term to fix that coin toss, and one that will also wash down the Lemonheads to boot, then it would be Alley Griffey’s espresso martini. Ask for it by name, and ask for it with Fernet Branca, and be sure to high five her after.
Otherwise, the success of a meal at Ever Andalo is up to fate, which is a shame given their neighbor. Why not invite the proprietress of Curio, Craft, & Conjure over for dinner, offer up their week’s supply of sage (it’s not helping the lemon aioli anyway), and ask her to burn it so as to ward off the demons that threaten to bring down this restaurant that is designed and meant for greatness? Isn’t that decorative outside awning alone worth saving?
This may sound like a scene from “Stranger Things,” yes, but for now, too many of the dishes on the menu are just that.
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