One can drive all of New Circle Road and come up with the occasional interesting restaurant, but that long stretch of highway is hardly a diner's destination. When D'Italia opened a few months ago, the excitement included slight shock. Italian on New Circle? Really?
The name, loosely translated, means "of Italy," and the evolving menu focuses accordingly. Chef Justin Awdish spent a year traveling around Italy's boot, picking up regional cooking styles en route. Instead of focusing on just one area, however, his repertoire spans the country's length and width, with greatest emphasis on the heel and toe and their American iterations.
Order smart, and you'll understand the buzz.
Among the appetizers, for instance, are tender calamari and super-hot banana peppers, which might be the best in town. Another seafood starter is the large platter of New Zealand mussels, served cool on the half-shell. Although bite-size black mussels would be better at room temperature and easier to eat, the white wine broth i which they were cooked was perfect. Sop up every drop with D'Italia's soft, chewy bread, served fresh and warm, accompanied by its own delicious garlic-infused olive oil.
Salads, seemingly obligatory in Italian-American restaurants, frequently get short shrift. Given the limitless creativity in dressings and ingredients that handfuls of simple greens should inspire, why does imagination often falter? That said, slivers of red onions and peperoncini really help the house salad. Choose it over a Caesar; both cost $1.99 when added to an entree.
One of my favorite main dishes at D'Italia was the calzone, a huge, hot pocket of pizza dough that could easily serve three. It is stuffed with sensual, stringy mozzarella and any combination of almost 30 other ingredients. I would go to D'Italia for the calzones alone.
The handmade pasta comes from Detroit. I loved the lasagna; it had just the right ratio of cheese and sauce to noodles. The creamy spaghetti carbonara is excellent, although large slices of chicken make the dish heavy (I've never understood the need to amend carbonara). Sausage- and ricotta-stuffed ravioli, because of gummy pasta, came in third.
One comment about the tomato sauces before moving on: Unless you're a vegetarian, choose the delicious meat sauce, rich with layered flavors, over the marinara, which tastes comparatively acidic, one-note and in need of a better base of olive oil and aromatics.
Other good entrees include eggplant Parmesan, which will be great when the marinara improves. No improvement is needed on the sauce of the veal marsala, heady from its fortified wine, or the veal piccata, bright with lemon and salty with capers. Both dishes, and the bourbon-sweet pork scallopini, will benefit from the meat being more diligently pounded. All three should be fork-tender, and that won't happen without thinner filets.
If you manage to finish the generous portions and their sides — usually mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables — you probably won't be able to eat dessert, but if you save room, the best pick is tiramisu. It was light as a feather, and lovely to look at, laced judiciously with black espresso on the bottom and dark cocoa powder on top. By contrast, the cannoli, while plated beautifully, were tough, and heavy with cinnamon.
I have been to D'Italia three times, and each visit has been better than the one before, meaning the owners, chef and staff all appear to care about making the restaurant the best it can be. Service is excellent, everyone is friendly, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the calzones and lasagna are terrific.
It looks like a worthy Italian option has at last found New Circle Road.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.