Once you could count on finding fried eggplant and paneed veal at any given local Italian restaurant as reliably as the California roll at a sushi bar. But these days eating Italian can mean something quite different thanks to a clutch of local restaurants mining rich regional veins of the cuisine.
The latest is A Mano (translated as "by hand"), which spreads its attention over a broad swath of traditional Italian cooking in dishes that share rustic, Old-World fundamentals. Chef Adolfo Garcia opened this handsomely renovated place last fall and tapped Joshua Smith, a former chef de cuisine at his nearby RioMar restaurant, as chef and partner at the new venture. Smith is shining new light on old-fashioned, sometimes ancient, cooking of a sort so rarely seen here it can seem fresh and exciting.
At its best, the approach brings straightforward, deeply satisfying flavor, as with roasted rabbit, a picture of country comfort with garlic, thyme and olives, or squid-ink spaghetti, a black, sea-scented nest for clams and leeks.
The epitome of A Mano's aesthetic is its salumi, an ever-changing roster of sausages and cured meats made in house. They're showcased on a combination platter, or affettati misti, that can look like an artist's palette of pork. One night, succulent slices of duck prosciutto made a guest appearance beside spicy, dense sopressata and smooth pork rillette, served in a jam jar with candied cherry and kumquat relish to spread over toasted bread. How could a first-course Caesar salad ever again compare to this?
The mixed grill entree benefits from the same enthusiasm for piled-on pork. A recent representative example started with a short, fat link of mild sausage and pickled peppers with two unusual but complementary cuts of pork. A thick slice of shoulder meat broke under the fork like pulled pork, and a rib chop carried a stretch of pork belly along for the ride, with its abundant fat well-charred to a pleasing crust.
Of the house-made pastas, my favorite is the slippery-smooth orecchiette, which cradled bits of sausage and broccoli. The gnudi are essentially ricotta ravioli denuded of their pasta shells. They're like enormous gnocchi made of cheese, though I wished there was something more than the sage-scented brown butter and scattering of shiitakes to give the dish some sparkle. A smaller version would be better as an appetizer.
The popularity of rustic cooking has elevated some once-lowly ingredients to prominence, often with happy results, but A Mano still sometimes left me wishing for the finer things. Eating the entree of braised oxtails required sorting through gummy tissue and digging tiny bits of fatty meat from the many-chambered tailbones. The coppa di testa, or hogshead cheese, was fried, which sounds decadent but broke the jellied loaf down into runny chunks under a loose crust.
What's most encouraging about A Mano is the kitchen's zeal for culling through such a vast repertoire for a local audience that likely finds much of it unfamiliar. It seems that Smith is always trying out something different, like the recent menu addition of nduja, the fiercely-spicy, deeply-smoky Calabrian sausage spread. A glass of limoncello, prepared in huge jugs steeping on the bar top, should finish a meal in the same handmade spirit as the cured meats that started it.