Location: 515 Broad St., Sewickley. 412-741-6420. www.nakedgrape.net
Hours: Wed.-Fri. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sat. noon-11 p.m.; Sun. 4-9 p.m.
Fare: Tuscan gourmet
Atmosphere: Indoor Tuscan courtyard
Liquor: Broad selection of wine
While we may be professional foodies, we're rank amateur wine-tasters. So, fortunately for us, The Naked Grape, a new wine bar in Sewickley, makes it easy for dilettantes and oenophiles alike to make informed pairings of food and wine.
The Naked Grapewas opened by David Jungling and Ryta Mirisciotti-Jungling, a couple whose engagement trip to Italy sealed their love of that country's culture, wine and cuisine. Their wine-tasting room welcomes both novices and experts to experience the flavors of the couple's beloved Tuscany, in a space decorated to look like an Italian courtyard turned outside-in. The floors are paved in patio tile; the walls are pale-washed stucco, hung with oversized sconces and a burbling fountain; and a trellis holds grapevines over the wine bar, situated, fittingly, at the center of the space. The predominating colors are sunny gold and, of course, purple.
At The Naked Grape, food is conceptualized, prepared and served in the context of wine. The wine list is broad, featuring many labels not available elsewhere in the region, and it changes constantly to reflect the seasons and the proprietors' selections. This kind of attention to wine for wine's sake is sure to appeal to experts, but what we appreciated most was the accessibility of the wine list and the way the menu was designed to showcase the most salutary pairings.
Instead of the typical appetizers, salads and entrees, The Naked Grape's menu is divided into courses, with all portions kept small to facilitate the tasting of multiple pairings. Each dish is listed with suggested wine accompaniments corresponding to categories on the wine list, an approach we found more useful than the traditional method of recommending specific bottles or even varietals. Thus, the Three Cheese Grille, a lunch panini, is recommended to go with a "full-bodied, buttery white"; open your wine list, and select from about eight options, available by the bottle or the glass. It's not the first time we've seen this approach, but the Naked Grape handles it very well, going so far as to list new wines in boldface to call them to the attention of regulars. There are a few truly pricey wines, but only a few, a clear signal that the offerings are for exploring -- not for impressing your dining companions.
Our antipasta dish, "The David," billed as "an original work of art," featured imported meats, olives, roasted peppers, caper berries and nuts. Unlike many antipasta dishes we have had, which seem thrown together from a trip to the local deli, the items on this plate all tasted of high quality and careful selection. We particularly appreciated the unusual but delicious sweet notes of some paper-thin-sliced beef, and the presence of vegetal green as well as sweet red roasted peppers. Most impressive, the potentially wearying flavors of cured meats and vegetables instead combined in delightful blends that felt light on the palate.
Angelique savored a special first course, polenta with seared tomatoes and sausage. There were also onions, cooked till soft and sweet, making them a fine foil for the sausage, which was well-seasoned but not spicy. The polenta itself was creamy inside with an ultra-thin crust of brown on top, giving it a delicate quality that played well with the end-of-summer sweetness of the tomatoes.
A more autumnal second course was porco bucco, braised pork shanks served in broth with diced, cooked root vegetables. The provision of a knife for this dish was extraneous; this is one case where we are not merely employing a cliché when we say the meat was falling off the bone. The flavor, however, was mild almost to a fault, closely resembling -- in texture as well as taste -- a chicken drumstick. Not a bad thing in itself, but disappointing to one who relishes the distinctive flavor of pork. The broth compensated by being dark and richly flavored with vegetables, herbs and juices from the meat.
Jason's first course of garlic shrimp over pasta briefly confused him; his first bite offered none of garlic's famous bite. Then he noticed the beautifully roasted, deep-brown whole cloves studding the dish. In an inversion of common shrimp and garlic pairings, the garlic provided a mellow flavor base while the shrimp's briny sweetness defined the top notes. The thick, ear-shaped orechiette pasta -- native to the little-known Apulia region of southeastern Italy -- offered a substantial grounding for the dish. We were pleased that the wine list included a suitable Apulian wine to go with the dish, a testament to the breadth of offerings here.
"Evelyn's beef Abruzzi petite filet" was pan-seared and topped with Corsican sauce and prosciutto garnish. The filet had a superb beefy flavor, impressive for this often mild cut. The sauce was dark and intense, with the crisped prosciutto adding more savory notes. For all its boldness, the dish avoided heaviness, mostly thanks to the size of the filet, but also because the sauce was not a rich one.
The Naked Grape's casual, Mediterranean ambience is carefully contrived to welcome guests whether they simply want to sip a glass of wine or enjoy a multicourse meal ... as in Tuscany, only closer.