By Robin Garr
Napa River Grill enjoyed a very good run before it renovated and rebranded as Osteria Italian Seafood last month.
Its name recently foreshortened to just-plain Napa, the upscale Northern California-style eatery had endured for 24 years, a long life for a restaurant.
After succeeding the fondly remembered Mamma Grisanti in Dupont Square in 1999, Napa River Grill moved to the then-new Westport Village in 2008. Several owners took its helm over the years. Even its familiar vineyard-shaded patio survived the move, and it remains in the new incarnation.
So while Osteria went through a quick renovation that converted its colors to nautical blues and whites during its brief closing in September, there’s still a distinct sense of the old Napa just beneath the surface.
Several of Napa’s most familiar menu items remain, and Napa’s Chef Seth Butkus is still at the helm in the kitchen. For all the emphasis on seafood and fish, there’s still an ample selection of chicken, pork, beef and cheese dishes to offer variety.
I think this is a smart move by Osteria owner Jared Fox Matthews, who brings his experience taking over and revitalizing Lou Lou Food & Drink and opening its second location; converting Equus and Jack’s into Black Rabbit, and remaking Diamond Pub & Billiards (where he had long been bar manager and later managing partner) to The Fox Den.
Osteria, whose Italian name means “tavern” with a strong sense of “roadhouse,” continues in that pattern: It builds on the vibe of its predecessor, expands it, and makes it new, but in comfortable ways that don’t banish its existing audience.
We arrived for a Saturday lunch and found the rooms filling up fast, but there were more than enough servers on hand to provide ample, if a bit chatty, service to everyone.
The lunch and dinner menus are similar in content and price, but a few more items are available in the evening, and the list of pasta and main dishes is more extensive (and more pricey) at night.
Appetizers (billed as “for the table,” soups and salads are priced from $3 (for lobster sliders and arancini Italian rice balls) to $25 (for Maryland lump crab cakes); a $30 antipasto board is available only evenings. Four house-made pasta dishes are all $20 for lunch; options expand to eight at night with prices from $21 (for spaghetti cacio a pepe) to $46 (for the house cioppino with diver scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels, and lobster in spicy tomato sauce over fettuccine).
Eight main courses at lunch are priced from $16 (for several items) to $28 (for sustainably caught verlasso salmon with a veggie mix). Nine evening entrees, many of them different from the lunch list, are $20 (for a margherita pizza) to $56 (for an 8-ounce filet mignon with Chianti demiglace).
As before, the restaurant’s bar is in a separate room with a comfortable dining area. Gone is the wine list’s Napa focus, replaced by a mostly Italian list regionally divided from Italy’s northern Piemonte and Veneto to Sicily in the south. There’s an enticing list of craft cocktails ($12 to $15), and the extensive bourbon selection that’s mandatory for a quality Louisville dining room.
We started with a popular holdover from Napa days, tomato bisque ($5 for a cup, $10 for a bowl). It was a good pick for a blustery autumn afternoon. A mushroom-cap-shaped dome of puff pastry atop the cup added flaky golden deliciousness while keeping the soup beneath warm. The soup was very rich and loaded with cream, but a tangy fresh-tomato flavor found its way through.
Deeply flavored strips of eggplant form whirls around creamy ricotta in this tasty and filling baked eggplant involtini appetizer.
Another appetizer, baked eggplant involtini ($14) also made a hearty start to our filling meal. Seven fat rounds of thin-sliced eggplant fashioned into tight rolls around creamy ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, baked until the eggplant was crisp but tender and the cheeses molten, and served on a bed of tangy marinara sauce in a small black iron skillet with snipped basil on top.
We finally got to the seafood department with a shallow white, gold-rimmed bowl of spaghetti con vongole ($20), pictured at the top of this page. A portion of fresh-made pasta was coated with thin garlic-lemon clam sauce and that stuck to the spaghetti strands and pooled in the shells of nine small, open littleneck clams. The clam meat tasted fresh but chewy, and its flavor was somewhat overwhelmed by the spicy flavor of abundant chopped Portuguese chouriço sausage. Tiny green peas, thin-sliced garlic, and a decorative grilled half-lemon completed the presentation, along with a thin-sliced, good quality lenth of ciabatta loaf alongside.
A margherita-style pizza ($20) was one of the few vegetarian dishes on the menu. It was built on a good, chewy and oven-spotted long, oval flatbread. It was topped with a thin coat of tart-sweet tomato sauce, molten mozzarella, and a scattering of halved red and yellow cherry tomatoes and a few basil leaves, served on a red plate decorated with streaks and spots of balsamic that happily did not extend to the pizza.
A substantial midday meal came to $62.54, plus a $15 tip.
Noise Level: With perhaps half the tables filled, sound levels averaged a buzzy but livable 68.4dB.
Accessibility: The dining room and restrooms appear fully accessible to wheelchair users.