You’d think I would know better, but obviously I don’t. At the end of a long workday, I decided to reward myself by having dinner at the hot new Austin restaurant Italic. At seven-thirty. On a Thursday. Without a reservation. The place was, of course, packed, but the hostess piped up, “There’s open seating at the bar.” So I joined several other customers prowling back and forth like lions watching a herd of wildebeests. In about ten minutes, two people left and I sprinted for the opening, arriving simultaneously with a man who’d been waiting even longer than I had. Famished by this time, I ordered the roasted cauliflower and some calamari and struck up a conversation with my accidental dining companion. In a few minutes my first order arrived, not the usual florets but ample crosscut pieces of cauliflower “steak,” beautifully browned and topped with a captivating relish of capers, raisins, and mint. A short time later came a plate of tender, quick-seared calamari, surrounded by a contrasting toss of almonds, mild green Castelvetrano olives, and julienned strips of blood orange. Sneakily I thought of offering to share as a way of getting a bite of my companion’s astounding double-bone tomahawk pork chop in a Fresno- and Anaheim-chile agrodolce sauce. But he was gazing into the distance. After several seconds of silent chewing, he looked over at me and declared, “This may be the best pork chop I’ve ever eaten.” He turned back to his plate and did not offer to share.
In all my years of visiting new restaurants, I’ve seldom known one to get most things right from the beginning. As a general rule, it takes time to work out the service kinks and fine-tune the recipes. Italic is largely the exception to the rule. One reason is that husband-and-wife chefs Andrew and Mary Catherine Curren have done their due diligence in the form of three previous venues. They started with comfort food for hipsters at 24 Diner, branched out into breads and cured meats at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden, and took a lighthearted French turn with Arro. Another reason for Italic’s success is its location in the 1954 Starr Building in the heart of downtown Austin. With a look originally conceived by nationally known mid-century designer Florence Knoll and now re-imagined by Austin’s VeroKolt design firm, the restaurant has ten-foot-plus ceilings, acres of plate glass, and a couple of colorful retro-modern murals that look as though they were lifted from Mad Men. And there are two final factors working in Italic’s favor: the breadth of its menu and the simple fact that it is open all day during the week. Drew said, “We want it to be a place where you can get a really great chicken sandwich or salad at eleven or three and come back for a nice dinner at night.”
People seem to be doing just that, including me, especially since Italic is three blocks from my office. On one of my first visits, I tried the prosciutto pizza, its splendid yeasty crust generously brushed with Italian salsa verde, a seductive paste of garlic, anchovies, and capers mixed with parsley and oregano. Encircled by the pie’s well-blistered puffy edges were curls of sweet, pink San Daniele ham and a landslide of arugula. On another spontaneous visit I got an appetizer portion of the penne bolognese with Parmesan. The ridged pasta, which comes from a maker in the Abruzzo region of Italy, was properly al dente, and the meaty sauce was familiar but richer than many I’ve had. I asked Drew about the sauce’s complexity. “First, we use both beef and pork,” he said, “and we sauté them in white wine.” “But is that what makes the flavor so full-bodied?” I asked. “No,” he said, “the secret ingredients are chicken livers pureed with cream.” And while I was processing that bit of information, he added, “And four nutmeg seeds!”
On most of my visits I’ve dined alone, but Italic is fun for a group (just don’t try it at ear-splitting peak hours). A few weeks ago, I took two visiting New York food writers, one of whom had been a judge on Top Chef Masters, there for an early dinner. Fish and chicken always put a restaurant through its paces—the timing on seafood is tricky and chicken has a high potential for boredom—so of course we ordered both. While we waited, we took the risk of spoiling our appetites with an array of nibbles. Our order of polenta had been cut into nicely squared-off logs lightly crisped on the outside but still soft in the center. The second snack, potato gnocchi, had been tossed with cubes of butternut squash and showered with grated Parmesan. (Drew told me later that the gnocchi, made in-house, go straight from the freezer to the sauté pan, “so they don’t have a chance to get soggy.”)
Our appetites partially appeased, my friends and I next split the beautiful coppery filet of Ora king salmon, still rosy pink in the middle, and devoured it along with its accompanying salad of fennel and grilled radicchio. Then our half chicken arrived. The opposite of boring, it had moist flesh and a just-crispy skin. Crowned with a coarse arugula pesto, it sat in juices that had pooled enticingly on the platter. Still hungry, we ordered scallops, snowy-white disks seared a deep mahogany on the outside and set atop a pungent, aromatic lemon risotto. The visitors left feeling that Austin as a food city just keeps getting better and better. I agree.
Now that I’ve made more than enough visits to write my column, I don’t really need to go back to Italic. Then again, it’s late in the afternoon, and I’m seriously thinking about calling a friend to meet me there at six. We can check out the all-Italian wine list, get a negroni on tap, maybe have a snack. But I can predict what will happen. One thing will lead to another and the next thing you know, we’ll decide to have dinner. So there is only one logical conclusion: I should make reservations. After all, I do know better now.
123 W. 6th, Austin (512-660-5390). L Mon–Fri. D 7 days. $$–$$$