Maturing Volare’s star shines bright


Sunday seafood brunch is a Lucullan feast

When Volare popped up on Frankfort Avenue the summer before last, I gave it a warm if somewhat mixed review, placing it somewhere between the ’50s-style Italian-American vibe of Lentini’s and the more upscale Northern Italian ambience of Vincenzo’s. It lost some ratings points for unfulfilled pretentiousness and good-but-could-be-better food and service, but I marked it as a place to be watched and with room to grow.

Quite a bit has changed since then: A Chicago-based partner has moved on, the affable Majid Ghavami, popular proprietor of Saffron’s and a veteran of front-of-the-house years at the old Casa Grisanti and Vincenzo’s, has moved in as a partner and maitre d’, and Chef Dallas McGarrity (hey, at least there’s a vowel on the end of his name) has grown from good to better with a little experience under his toque.

Volare just recently added an expansive, seafood-rich Sunday brunch to its offerings, and an indulgent sampling today left me persuaded that this place is now offering Mr. Ghavami’s former employer, the other Big V, a serious run for its money as the city’s top Italian table.

3 stars
2300 Frankfort Ave.
(502) 894-4446

The brunch – not a buffet but a $27 prix fixe repast featuring antipasto, appetizer, main course and dessert – offers Northern Italian flavors with a strong emphasis on seafood. It was remarkably good, not a single misstep in a feast worthy of the ancient Roman emperor Lucullus, known for dinners so sumptuous that “Lucullan feast” to this day means a memorable repast.

When you first sit down at the tables comfortably draped in heavy white cloth, servers immediately bring out an oval antipasto tray laden with a thin but ample cheesecake. Eat dessert first? Not! This is a savory cheesecake, creamy but light, fashioned from cream cheese studded with salty bits of prosciutto and purple Mission figs on a crisp crumb crust that seems to have a hint of herbs. It’s accompanied with a ration of mesclun lettuce, several strips of crunchy seeded flatbread, a small slice of mortadella (the original Bologna sausage) and one of salami; a cherry pepper and a piquant peperoncini pepper stuffed with cream cheese. It’s a perfect antipasto, not enough to fill you up but full of mouth-watering flavors to wake up your palate and get it ready for lunch.

Excellent hot coffee was kept constantly refilled, as were tall tumblers of ice water. Kentucky’s no-liquor-before 1 p.m. on Sunday law (what ever happened to “the separation of church and state?”) bars wine as a brunch beverage for early arrivals, but the bar is open for later service.

Appetizers were, respectively, good and excellent. Good was a thin, dinner-plate-size appetizer pizza (actually grilled flatbread) topped with an appropriately scant paint job of spicy tomato sauce and dabs of mild goat cheese; excellent were seven or eight perfectly fresh small oysters, coated in a crispy cornmeal breading and fried golden-brown and delicious, plated around an egg-size mound of silken, creamy polenta and dressed with a light cream sauce with bits of pancetta and roast red pepper. Two kinds of fresh bread came in a basket: A sweet coffee-cake type and a tender herbed foccacia. (The brunch menu’s other appetizer choices are calamari with citrus-ginger aioli, and scampi with arugula greens and grilled Italian flatbread.)

Main courses were even more impressive: Branzino di Giorno (Chilean sea bass of the day) this day was a beautiful block of firm, snow-white boneless fish à la meuni`re, simply sauteed just long enough to turn a light flour dredge into a paper-thin, glassy-crisp coating, topped with a sweet-tangy peach-tomato salsa. (Note that the branzino stays the course every Sunday, but presentation varies from week to week with the chef’s whim.)

Risotto di Mare (“risotto of the sea”) was remarkable, a perfect al dente risotto as good as I’ve ever had anywhere outside Italy except perhaps at my own table, cooked in a light, subtle tomato sauce with more than a hint of saffron and enriched with, I think, butter and cream, loaded with a fishmarket basket of clams and mussels in their shells, a huge scallop, an oxymoronic jumbo shrimp, and bite-size pieces of mild white fish and a few tentacley bits of squid, er, calamari.

Other main-course menu choices are cioppino, the Italian fish stew by way of San Francisco; “steak and eggs” featuring a pair of mini-medallions of tenderloin over creamy polenta, with eggs baked inside fresh tomato shells; and pollo Parmigiano, a chicken breast breaded and fried Milanese-style, topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella, with a side of spaghetti marinara. Kids 10 and under may choose from a special menu, made for youngsters but hardly dumbed down: Chicken fingers with cheesey farfalle pasta; spaghetti and meatballs; grilled pork chop, or baked cheese ravioli.

The dessert plate, which may vary with the chef’s whim, featured a martini glass of fresh strawberries and blueberries nestled in a rich but light Marsala-blood orange zabaglione, and a towering slice of freshly made tiramisu topped with a surprisingly good out-of-season strawberry.

It was a very fine brunch indeed, and the toll – $57.24, plus tip to bring the total to $70 – wouldn’t have even made a dent in Emperor Lucullus’s petty cash box. This V’s for victory: Add it to the top tier of Louisville’s many great places to dine. $$$$

ACCESSIBILITY: Except for one dining section up two steps, the restaurant and facilities appear independently accessible to wheelchair users.