“So, what does urban Italian mean”?
That was the question I posed to my very good-natured server at JT’s Urban Italian. I wasn’t being rhetorical. I was looking for an answer that might resolve what I perceived to be the restaurant’s glaring contradiction.
Despite billing itself as “urban,” which connotes sophistication, and despite being portrayed by its owners and the media as upscale and akin to a trendy restaurant you might find in a city like New York or Toronto, JT’s looks and feels provincial. From its artless logo and hulking large screen TVs to its loud purple walls, black ceiling, mirrored pendant lamps, and neo-90s patterned carpet, it is like something out of a “Saved by the Bell” soundstage. Aesthetically speaking, it’s precisely the opposite of what I look for in a modern, “urban” dining experience.
The cocktail menu, which panders to the masses at the expense of being interesting or admirable, did not leave me with a better impression. More than half of it is vodka based. Of the restaurant’s few attempts to incorporate better bottles into the mix, two—Crème de Violette and Campari—are glaringly misspelled. Most frustrating though is JT’s lead specialty drink: an uninspired mix of Tito’s, soda, and tonic. You know, a “sonic.”
Honestly, if that still passes as a craft cocktail in this city, we have a long way to go.
My misgivings about the décor and cocktail program aside, the bartender I spoke with on my recent visit was pleasant and engaging—polished even. I wasn’t about to drop $10 on something with Absolut Citron and prosecco, but I appreciated that he asked me about the book I had in tow. And I was genuinely happy to hear his subsequent thoughts on Virginia Woolf while I sipped a perfectly nice glass of Chablis and waited for my friend. In hindsight, that’s where the incongruity began.
It was incongruous because, the wine, the bar banter, and the food I would come to eat that evening all demonstrated some amount finesse, and all were better than the atmosphere demanded they be.
A starter of bruschetta ($7.50), for instance, really worked all the “stuff on bread” pleasure centers my brain has accumulated over the years. The dish’s monochromatic display of verdant pea puree, perfectly ombré avocado slices, and mint was delicately interrupted by wisps of pink-ringed radish and a dusting of grated cured egg yolk. The latter added complex saltiness, in much the same way a hard cheese would. A sort of ovular parmesan.
The whole thing was grounded by slices of perfectly charred toast, which contributed necessary texture and a smoky, savory counterpoint to the creamy, bright toppings. Good bruschetta should be scorched. Too often in this town, it is not.
Char was also the strong suit of “nanna’s” fresh artichokes ($11), which arrived stems-on in a cast iron-encased pool of olive oil. They were served with half-heartedly blistered tomatoes that would have benefitted from more deflating, sugar-concentrating heat. A crowning dollop of fresh ricotta needed more salt to bring out its lactic charms. But it was far from a bad dish.
Entrees of Mediterranean sea bass ($36) and black spaghetti ($27) were deftly executed and spoke to the kitchen’s attention to detail. The former was served in thin, crisp-skinned filets over a silky, melting mélange of brown buttered fennel and zucchini amplified by lemon juice and capers. The latter boasted perfectly cooked pasta and a gaggle’s worth of tender baby octopi bound by a marrow-enriched pomodoro sauce. A healthy smattering of sweated celery brought a welcome, perceptible vegetal note to an otherwise rich and briny dish.
Altogether, the food was not revelatory or envelope pushing. But it was a solidly good meal reflective of a chef with taste and a point of view. That put it squarely at odds with its surroundings.
As for my server’s answer to my question, I think he spieled something about hipsters and casual dining and modern interpretations of Italian fare.
I can’t be sure though. His words were garbled by a Maroon 5 video blaring from the right-most flat screen.