Scalo Northern Italian Grill
There are many things to love about northern Italy. Mountains, ocean, olives, truffles, vino and fish, to name a few. Scalo Northern Italian Grill has them, as well as a patio to eat them on. It’s a patio that fits like rose-colored glasses, making you feel cool and the world look beautiful, as you sip the evening breeze and watch the Sandias turn red.
The leafy salads at Scalo are well-crafted beauties, and we enjoyed every single one. The simplest was the insalata mista, with a rich, syrupy balsamic vinaigrette. The beefy bib lettuce in the lattuga con prosciutto came dressed in red wine and topped with a decadent combination of figs, prosciutto and cheese. The insalata Scalo featured beans, cheese and delicious chunks of succulent, smoky grilled eggplant atop its leaves.
Many of the greens and other veggies are from area farms and La Montanita Co-op, which is next door, adding to the local, neighborhoody charm of Scalo. Most of the non-salad plates come garnished with a generous pile of these greens, nicely dressed, and it was sad to see how many of these wonderful greens remained on the plates untouched as the servers took them away.
From the antipasti section, the bruschetta terzo plate came with, as its name suggests, three different toppings: beet and blue cheese, housemade mozzarella mixed with chopped tomatoes, and al-dente chickpeas that were strangely satisfying despite their simplicity. The antipasto plate, a must for the patio, was heavy with grappa-cured salmon, cured meats, housemade mozzarella and vegetables. Aficionados of fried seafood should consider the fritto misto, a mountain of fried calamari and shrimp. The calamari was soft; lemon aioli clung to the crags of the delicate batter. The cozze alla Scalo, a submerged mountain of mussels in saffron wine sauce with butter, garlic, shallots, tomato and sage, was a force to be reckoned with. That, along with the bread it comes with, would be a first class, poor man’s Italian seafood dinner in itself.
From the pasta menu, the ravioli-like agnolotti, filled with braised short ribs, was impressive. The mild marinara seemed to cradle me along with the noodles in its comforting warmth. Sprigs of asparagus among the agnolotti were surprising, confusing even, but totally worked, along with the olives and spinach also in the mix. The only pizza we tried, pear and gorgonzola with caramelized onion, was an elegant combination that made my skeptical date eat her words, along with my pizza.
The branzino, which the menu identifies as “sea bass,” was cooked with tomatoes and strong-flavored olives in a style that’s common along Italy’s northwest coast. The “sea bass” was a nice piece of fish, but too light and flakey to have been authentic branzino. It was, unmistakably, Patagonian tooth fish, also known as Chilean sea bass, despite being unrelated to bass (I later confirmed this by phone). Branzino, a true sea bass, is an amazing fish, selected by the New York Times as Fish of the Year in 2012. To call Patagonian tooth fish branzino, and to describe is as “sea bass” while omitting the “Chilean” part of its nickname, is pretty weak sauce, I have to say. But it sure was tasty. And the sauce it came with brought me partway back to the Ligurian coast, where a similar preparation, which contains pine nuts and capers, is called “alla Ligure.”
The lamb chop entrée was a decadent, buttery grease-fest, and I relished the spoon-tender flesh and the juicy, luxurious fat that clung to the meat and bone ... I had to wonder if this was the best lamb I’d ever eaten.
The lamb chop entrée was a decadent, buttery grease-fest, and I relished the spoon-tender flesh and the juicy, luxurious fat that clung to the meat and bone. It went beautifully with a glass of smooth red wine from Piedmont, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, and came with a razor-thin, balsamic drizzled crouton that I used to scoop up the jus and mashed potatoes below. I had to wonder if this was the best lamb I’d ever eaten.
Alas, the third and final lamb chop on the plate tasted slightly off; my date and I both agreed, so we didn’t eat it. Given how delightful a time we were having, this did little to kill our buzz. Nonetheless, we mentioned the chop to the server as we ordered dessert. To our surprise, he seemed to blow it off, laughing nervously and nodding his head, while reminding us that lamb chops can be gamey, before scurrying away.
“What do you want to bet he never mentions it again?” said my date. “Of course he will,” I said. “He’s discussing it with the kitchen as we speak.”
Dessert came, with no mention of the suspect chop. But my immediate focus was the crème brulee, which seemed built of living, quivering custard, just on the solid side of molten.
We decided not to bring home the barely-eaten chop we’d complained about, and removed it from a to-go dish we’d assembled. We put the barely-eaten chop on the table, and the server placed the bill right next to it. When he took away the signed bill, he took the suspect lamb chop, too.
Alas, until that unfortunate incident, the server had been great, and no kitchen or waitstaff is flawless. For that matter, no critic is either. I can’t rule out the possibility that my date and I somehow co-hallucinated the off taste. But then, let’s assume we had. When you’re paying Scalo prices, you can expect the benefit of the doubt. When we didn’t get that, it left an off-taste a lot worse than that chop.
Despite our meal ending on this note, I’d go back to Scalo. There is a lot to appreciate, and most everything is done right. While it may not be perfect, neither is northern Italy, and I’d return there in a heartbeat. After all, if we only visited perfect places, we might never go anywhere.
3500 Central SE
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. & 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m & 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. & 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Range: Starters and salads: $5 to $12, entrees: $13 to $30
Booze: Full bar, plus a “Wine and Dine” pairing menu on Wednesdays
The Alibi recommends:
Mussels (cozze alla Scalo)
Braised short rib agnolotti
After all of that, the lamb