I hate to be a whiner, so before I get to my one complaint, let me tell you all the things that I love about freshly renovated Volare:
• It looks classier than ever, thanks to a light but effective makeover.
• Chef Joshua Moore’s menu is better than ever.
• Its impressive selection of pasta dishes has been kicked up by a fancy, new, Italian-made pasta machine.
• The bar’s comfortable vibe is not diminished by sophisticated live music Wednesdays through Saturdays. Volare scores as both a neighborhood hangout and a citywide destination.
But first we had to get our table. Let’s talk about that. When Mary and I arrived with and Don and Anne to take up our 7 p.m. reservation, we learned that the previous party at our table was lingering. They’d be leaving soon, the host said, hopefully.
OK, that’s fair. Even with a reservation, I get it, that restaurants operate on tight margins, and if you can squeeze in another between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., you’re going to do it. I can’t expect you to hold a table open just for me. But it took 30 long minutes to be seated, hungry and, frankly, just a little cranky about waiting that long with a reservation on a week night.
It’s a problem. Giving the dilatory group the bum’s rush just isn’t done. But at some point, a little polite conversation is in order, perhaps inviting them to wrap up their evening at a table in the bar. I understand the goal of keeping customers happy, but that’s all the customers, both the departing party and the arriving party.
Once seated, beverages from Volare’s first-rate bar program quickly adjusted our attitudes — an Oregon Deschutes IPA ($6.50) for Don and a sweet, smoky Volare Manhattan ($10) barrel-aged in-house for me. Volare’s made-over scene retains its familiar mural of Venice’s San Marco Plaza and floor-to-ceiling wine rack, yet seems a bit more casually upscale in black and beige tones, with a new art-glass fixture.
Fortified with our drinks, warm Italian bread and a crock of roasted garlic in olive oil, we studied the menu. It offers a dozen apps (“antipasto”) and salads (“insalate”) closely priced from $8 to $13; ten pasta dinners (“grandi paste”) plus a risotto for $20 to $28. Eight main dishes (“piatto principale”) — most offering an option of chicken or veal — are $20 to $42, and the three steak dinners are $38 to $46. Short vegetarian and gluten-free menus are available on request; and the bar menu lists affordable small plates ($5 to $8) and pizzas fired in a Big Green Egg charcoal cooker.
We started with shared apps and salads. A buttercrisp lettuce special ($10) hit the spot with bacon, wedges of hard-boiled duck egg and a creamy dressing; An autunno salad ($10) was made with hydroponic lettuce tossed with sliced grilled apples, grilled fennel and dabs of goat cheese, spicy salami, toasted walnuts and a mustard-balsamic vinaigrette. It had potential, but it was skimpy and a bit tired, the only disappointment of the evening.
A large bowl of steamed mussels ($14) was memorable, with abundant plump, fresh shellfish swimming in a warm, fennel-scented broth. Rotollini di melanzane ($10) presented three fat, ricotta-stuffed, baked eggplant rolls plated with a savory pureed marinara and decorated with a balsamic drizzle.
All four main dishes made us happy.
Beef Bolognese over malfalde pasta ($23) was appropriately rich — don’t ask about the calories — but well done and delicious. The traditional Bolognese sauce was bianco style, white, not red, long-simmered chopped Angus beef in a light white wine sauce with pine nuts and topped with grated Parmigiano, just right to get caught up in the nooks and crannies of the ragged-edged house-made pasta.
Five large ricotta ravioli were arranged in a shallow bowl and topped with a creamy orange-pink tomato-vodka sauce ($22), an Italian-American invention that has become popular in Italy and rightly so: It turns basic Italian red sauce into something that’s still comforting but more subtle and complex. It was dotted with a ration of crisp-tender green peas that made it seem almost healthy.
Chicken Marsala ($25) framed a tender sautéed chicken breast and oversize, Sheltowee Farm shiitake mushrooms with a sweet-savory brown Marsala wine sauce and sides of well-made, healthy veggies: zucchini, beets, a bit of steamed chard and an intriguing scoop of herbal, slightly spicy polenta-potato mash.
Frutti-di-mare ($28) mustered an army of seafood, all fine — clams, mussels, a bit of salmon, a square of sea bass, scallops and shrimp — over house-made linguine in a flavorful, but unexpectedly hot-and-spicy, white wine tomato sauce.
Much to our pleased surprise, we caught the tail end (sorry, it’s over) of a 13 percent-off discount celebrating Volare’s 13th birthday. With two dessert specials, a pear tart and a classic Roman Tartufo ($10 each), an expansive dinner for four was $166.45 plus tip; our dishes for two came to $80.23 plus $20 tip. The discount spared each couple about $12.