There's a gaping hole in the Omaha dining scene, and Avoli Osteria in Dundee is filling it.
Chef-owner Dario Schicke and chef Ben Maides have finally brought good Northern Italian to central Omaha, and they've done it without pretension.
This is Schicke's second Dundee restaurant — he also owns Dario's Brasserie — and he and Maides have calculated everything at Avoli since its July opening: the ambiance, the cocktails and wine and, of course, the tightly focused menu that's full of handmade pasta, thoughtful appetizers and rustic Italian entrees designed for sharing.
Schicke doesn't want Avoli — the name combines his two daughters' names, Ava and Olivia — to just be for special occasions. He wants it to be a neighborhood place, warm and welcoming, and it is.
On a recent blustery weeknight, diners filled the restaurant, simply decorated with marble tables, concrete floors and a mishmash of chandeliers that add flattering, golden light to the space. I appreciated that the restaurant plays music standards, including lots of Sinatra. It works, and when it's crowded, the space comes alive.
Touches of the restaurant's history — it's best remembered for being Trovato's — remain. The bar is in the same place, though it's more open now, and a brick wall to the west is still there. So are some iron decorations in the back dining room.
The atmosphere is romantic enough for a special occasion but welcoming enough for the everyday, and the interchangeable menu reinforces that blend. You can order an $11 pasta — the best $11 you might spend in an Omaha restaurant these days — or you can get a $31 mixed meat plate to share. A $60 steak is next to a $16 plate of tender, grilled octopus.
There are midtown Italian restaurants serving Southern Italian cuisine: eggplant Parmesan, red marinara sauce and especially lots of pizza. That's not the food diners will find at Avoli, though. Instead, they will find Northern Italian cuisine — roasted meat, including homemade sausage; handmade, fresh pasta with butter and cream based sauces; and a variety of hard and soft Italian cheeses, some made in house.
Maides, who cooked in Italy, knows what he's doing, especially with those pasta dishes.
Pillowy, handmade gnocchi is topped with the kind of long-simmered sausage and tomato ragu that people dream of achieving. The bolognese, a pork and veal concoction seasoned with a fresh herbaceousness, gets a pleasant crunch from toasted hazelnuts.
The best of the pastas we tried, the carbonara, is decadent. Creamy and cheesy with just a hint of garlic, white wine and guanciale, a house-smoked pork jowl. It's incredible.
Pasta portions are small — good for the waistline and even better for sharing. The smaller portions come with lower prices and mean a group can share a variety of them. Avoli doesn't place salt or pepper shakers or bowls of cheese on its tables, though diners can get more cheese for an additional 75 cents. It also doesn't give complimentary bread service, though house-made rosemary focaccia is available for $2. Maides and Schicke are sticklers on these choices. They'd rather diners try a new appetizer or split a pasta instead of filling up on free bread.
Instead of bread, try the burrata and squash. A fresh mozzarella cheese shell filled with mozzarella curd and cream, all made in-house, comes served next to a seasonally spicy and cinnamony round of roasted butternut squash and a drizzle of sweet quince sauce.
My favorite of the entrees I tried was the Grillata Misto, or mixed grill, an ever-morphing selection of grilled meats, each served with its own accompaniments. The one I had included a delicious bit of beef sitting on a potato puree topped with a drizzle of jus; three big head-on prawns served over a pile of warm, lightly dressed greens; and a house-made sausage with woodsy-tasting mushrooms. Simple and honest, it's the kind of food I'd eat every night.
The half-roast chicken was the same: smoky and juicy, served with celery root puree and tender-grilled radicchio. The only bit of the plate that perplexed a touch were two cakes, which seemed to be made of corn and tasted a bit dry. Our server told us they were cane≠derli, traditional peasant-style dumplings made with fontina cheese; speck, smoked and cured pork back; and pieces of focaccia.
Schicke's baby at the restaurant is the homemade Italian gelato. I tried three flavors: Nutella, pistachio and sea salt olive oil with a glass of Nebbiolo, a wine from the Piemonte region. The gelato is a just-sweet-enough confection, a perfect way to finish a rich Italian meal.
On my count, there's one other Italian spot in Avoli's same genre, west Omaha's Dante Ristorante Pizzeria. To see Omaha blooming with more restaurants in the vein of Avoli — one of the best I've eaten in this year — is exciting. Avoli is serving simple, honest food that's made with confidence and care. And it also happens to be really good.
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5013 Underwood Ave.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close Sunday, closed Monday.
Hit: The burrata and squash appetizer is a must, especially as the vegetable portion changes seasonally. When the dish debuted, it had beets.
Miss: Avoli cooks its homemade pasta al dente. One of the four pasta dishes we tried was slightly chewy, though this is splitting hairs.
Drinks: All-Italian wine list, Italian beers and Italian booze. Don't be afraid to ask for recommendations. A selection of bottles is priced at $30.
Price: Wide-ranging, with $9 appetizers, $11 pastas and $40 to $60 entrťes sized and priced to share.
Service: Excellent, friendly and knowledgeable.