After reading many positive posts on the board, I finally made it to Incanto on Sat. to try their take on Italian cuisine in California. Overall I found the dinner to be excellent with good service. There have been some less positive reports here, which tempered my expectations going in to the dinner, but the kitchen easily blew past any doubts I might have had.
Antipasti for the table:
Roman-Style shaved artichoke salad. This was a perfectly executed simple spring salad of nearly transparent raw baby artichokes with a few bits of greens and some aged cheese. No oxidization of the chokes and yet not an overly powerful dressing. I thought this salad with its acidity and green-ness was a perfect accompaniment to the salumi.
Warm bread salad of dandelion greens & pecorino. Alright, I am going to start this with 2 complaints. When I get a piece of toasted bread with a topping on it I call it bruschetta. I was expecting more of a croutons with greens approach like a panzanella. Second, one slice of bread with a tablespoon of greens is an insanely small portion for $7.50. This did not seem like a very labor intensive dish and with bread and dandelion greens being really cheap we felt a bit overcharged on this one. Complaints aside the dish was very well executed. The bread was perfectly cooked with just enough char and just dry enough to soak up the cooking liquid of the greens. I find dandelion greens to be overly chewy if not cooked fairly long and these were dead on. They were tender and right at the point of becoming a grey-green long cooked vegetable but still retaining a bit of their freshness.
Antipasto platter: We recd porchetta, mortadella, a lamb dish that I thought they said was a culatello but seemed more like a thinly sliced cooled roast, a fairly chunky rustic pate with mustard, copa di testa with pickled onions, roasted garlic, Sardinian pecorino and a few mini radishes and carrots. My favorite was the porchetta but I was impressed by the quality of every item and the almost fluffy texture of the mortadella. The only thing I did not care for was the head cheese but this is personal preference and not the fault of the kitchen.
All of this went well with the very pretty Movia pinot nero sparkling wine.
I had Bigoli with calamari in rich red wine broth. This was truly excellent. All of us calamari lovers live under the tyranny of the Age of Fried Calamari where you have to look a bit for non fried versions (not that I have a problem with a good fried version but I am sure I am not the only one who has been subjected to more giant baskets of heavily breaded/battered/floured calamari than they can count) but slow cooked versions are even rarer. The dish was served appropriately brothy and had a great interplay between the chewy texture of the bigoli and the tender slow cooked calamari. The brininess of the seafood and the wheat of the pasta were just strong enough to stand up to the concentrated fruit of the wine in the broth. And how great to have seafood pasta that pairs with red wine! The only downside is that the while the thick bigoli are not quite the sauce spinning pinwheels of dried pasta like perciatelli/bucatini, the purplish sauce kept me close to my bowl for fear of my yellow shirt looking like a bad Pollack imitation.
I also tasted the excellent handkerchiefs w/ pork ragu, Tagliatelle with tuna conserva, cannelloni & meyer lemon (the lemon was perfect to balance the richness of the fish creating a fairly bright dish), and the whole wheat cannelloni with mozzarella di buffala, wild onions and black trumpet mushrooms. I have a question for the regulars; is the pork ragu always a ground meat version? I was expecting it to be more of a chunks of braised pork shoulder ragu instead of a pork ragu Bolognese. Still this had great depth of flavor and I can see why it stays on the menu.
We tried to get the Produttori del Barbaresco at this point but all had been allocated to their glass program so we went with the very nice Franz Hass Lagrein.
I followed the CH advice that anything braised is great here and went with the Braised pork shoulder with polenta verde, olives and preserved lemon. I feel I am a decent home cook and I had recently braised some pork shoulder in white wine and chicken stock so I had to let my ego take a pummeling as the texture and depth of flavor at Incanto was just so much better. Perfect texture, not melting to nothing mushiness but very tender with just enough bite left. There was also no drying out of the meat and the braising liquid had deep slow cooked flavor. The kitchen also had a light hand with the accent flavors so the olives and lemon were not allowed to dominate. The polenta was not exactly needed after pasta but is of course great with braising liquids. The pureed kale in the polenta was a nice touch that lightened the dish a bit and is something I will try at home. As our wine was getting low I manage to sneak in a glass of the Barbaresco which was very nice.
I also tasted a Grilled hanger steak with asparagus, grilled onions, shaved Parmesan and 15 y.o. balsalmic and the Whole herb stuffed branzino with sautéed escarole & Seville orange salmorglio. The fish was very good though interestingly this little trout size bass was cooked whole but bone free? It was extremely good and the fennel fronds in the cavity had nicely perfumed the fish but I could not help but wonder if it would have been better if cooked on the bone.
One interesting thing I noticed was an extremely modest use of herbs and cheese. While most anything can taste pretty good with parmesan or pecorino grated on it, I liked that the usage in dishes like the salads was very modest to keep it from overpowering the lighter vegetable flavors. While I would not expect them to add cheese to either of the seafood pastas, the handkerchiefs would not have been ruined by a grating but I did not think it was necessary. I dont think any of the dishes came with that now official dusting of parsley. I took this as a sign that the kitchen was really thinking about the flavor balance of their food and keeping out anything that was not essential to the dish.
I thought the last posts on Incanto had said that the pastry chef had become sick of the bay leaf panna cotta and taken it off the menu. Either they changed their minds or customers demanded it back because it was on the menu served with roasted rhubarb and saba. The accompaniments went well with the panna cotta but IMO were just not needed. The panna cotta was was perfect having a very delicate creamy texture with a perfect balance between the dairy/sugar/herbal flavors. This had never sounded that appealing to me when it was described in past posts but once again trusting CH consensus led to a great dish.
We also ordered the cookie plate which was also excellent. I dont tend to think of the marshmallow as an Italian thing but I suppose if it was invented on the Amalfi coast they might have come up with this lemon infused version. Purist Italian tendencies went out the window and I asserted birthday privilege to get my share.
Overall I thought the meal was superb. Certainly not a cheap dinner in the end but I thought the amount homemade items, the balanced dishes which felt Italian even when not traditional, and good execution made it worthwhile. There were a couple of moments when I could not find my waiter but I dont think I have ever seen people talking to their waiters as much as at Incanto. I expect that figuring out course pacing and the large and less familiar wine list slows down the pace a bit.
Great, I see they just updated the menu for the day I was there!
Another great meal found at Chowhound,