May 6th, 2010 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (11)
I’ve just eaten the best spaghetti in Tulsa. That’s what I said last year when I first ate at Villa Ravenna, and now on my second visit, I can say that again. For me, good Italian food brings back memories…
It was a warm summer night many years ago. I could see the moon blazing above me. My dad was lecturing in Naples and one of his Italian friends had taken us to an outdoor restaurant in a small nearby town. Now this guy was the first chowhound I’d ever met. He was rich and he drove a big fancy sports car. He would have been welcomed in the fanciest restaurants in Naples or Rome. But he preferred to seek out tiny trattorias in rustic villages, unknown places that served excellent food. Anyway, in this timeless and forgotten town, the street was so narrow his car got caught between two buildings. We walked to the restaurant. They served pasta of course, and there was pizza, as big as the table, which came from an ancient, wood-burning oven. It might have been the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten. But I was only a child and I soon forgot the taste. I remembered the narrow street and our car getting caught and the outdoor tables and the centuries-old moonwashed walls around us. Today though, it’s the food I remember.
What I ate at Villa Ravenna brings those memories back, with a Proustian vividness that lets me see that moon-dappled village square once again. Yani and Sergio Orioli, the amiable owners, hail from Ravenna, which had a long and turbulent history as capital of an Ostrogothic kingdom, later fought over by Venice and the Pope, who wanted to annex it to the Papal States. Dante is buried there. Ravenna, though, is not known for its cuisine (it’s technically a part of Italy’s glorious culinary treasure Emilia-Romagna, but as the chef flies it’s far closer to Venice), and so, though they use some of their old family recipes, the Oriolis decided to cook many of the entrees they serve in the style of southern Italy, which is why it’s familiar to me. My dad used to take me to tiny nameless restaurants on the side streets of Naples, and the pasta you’ll get at Villa Ravenna could have come from one of them.
Villa Ravenna has more than a touch of elegance, and that gives it a European flair. There’s a head waiter, other waiters smartly dressed in brocade vests, and you dine by candlelight. The menu is extensive and can be expensive, with whole grilled fish and inch-thick lamb chops and venison medallions sauteed in sweet wine. Those items sounded very Tuscan and very tempting. But I and my friends skipped that, and focused on pasta. So let’s cut to the chase and go to the pasta that brought all those childhood dreams flooding back.
Fettucini al Nero di Seppia. Black pasta.($20) There’s homemade fettuccini, colored black because it’s made with the black ink (nero di seppia) secreted by squids, harvested somehow in Spain and shipped expressly to Villa Ravenna. The ink doesn’t have a taste of its own; it accents, amplifies, gives depth to the flavor of the seafood. The sauce, rich yet not overpowering, also yields center stage to those glistening, succulent shrimp, squid and clams. I’ve never had that exact recipe in Naples (and in fact squid ink is prized in Ravenna), but surely I could taste the tang of the sultry Italian sea.
For our second dish I chose one that I did order many times in Naples and Capri and wherever I could find it, one of my favorites, chicken cacciatore ($17). Here’s what I got.
Sadly, this one didn’t match my memories. The only American version that ever did is a recipe from one of Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks, and in that one, you take a whole chicken, bones and all, cut into pieces, dredge the pieces in flour and fry it until brown in a pan, then you take out the chicken, add wine to the pan juices, reduce by half, then add a can of Italian tomatoes and some chopped vegetables and the chicken, and simmer for about an hour. It comes out brown with very little liquid. The flavors melt together, the taste is indescribable, and surely it doesn’t look and taste like chicken with tomato sauce poured on top. But this one did. I think the problem is that the chef used boneless chicken breasts, pounded thin, which require a much shorter cooking time — but it’s that long cooking time that pays off with flavor. I should add that, though it tasted like tomato sauce, it was a very very good tomato sauce, and we didn’t leave a drop. There was a side dish of simply made spaghetti with garlic and oil and spices. We devoured that too.
The pasta section of the menu has excellent value, so let me tell you what we ordered on my first visit. My two friends had spaghetti Bolognese and fettuccine Alfredo (both under $10). The Bolognese was our least favorite dish. The Alfredo was very good, rich and creamy. I ordered the Spaghetti Puttanesca ($11.50), and that dish shone. Perfectly cooked pasta, a rich sauce, slightly acidic, redolent of capers olives and anchovies. I would have been happy to get this dish in New York.
We ended with chocolate cake, American style, it was very good but I just can’t concentrate on it now. I can’t get that seafood out of my mind.
6526A East 51 St (in Farm Shopping Center)
open Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 11 till 2 and from 5 till 9. Open Saturday from 4 to 9. Closed Monday.
About Brian Schwartz:
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.