David Jungling and Ryta Mirisciotti-Jungling wanted their Sewickley wine bar, the Naked Grape, to look like a California wine country tasting room and serve food inspired by the cuisine of Tuscany.
Smooth wood and stone surfaces, minimal furnishings and pale ochre walls give the small triangular room a warm, spacious feel. A burbling wall fountain lends a touch of the outdoors and, on summer evenings, sidewalk tables are a charming alternative.
The wine list, while not one of the longest in the city, is diverse and better priced than many. Well-versed in the arcane aspects of Pennsylvania liquor laws (she has worked for a Pennsylvania winery and a Pennsylvania-based wine distributor), Mirisciotti-Jungling focuses on Pennsylvania wine that may not excite connoisseurs, but could appeal to many wine drinkers.
2 stars = Mediocre
515 Broad St.
Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, noon-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m.
Basics: Casual wine bar with a small, seasonally changing selection of Italian-inspired small plates.
Recommended dishes: Polenta with plum tomato sauce, greens and beans, "The David" Antipasto, "O" Insalata.
Prices: Small plates, $4-$13.
Wine: Frequently updated wine list, half-pours available and tasting encouraged. International list with many choices from Pennsylvania. Organized by wine character-- crispy, tangy whites to full-bodied reds; about 30 sparkling, whites and roses and 30 reds by the bottle with more than two dozen choices for $35 or less; majority of wines available by the glass, $6.50-$15.50.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged for prime times on weekends.
Noise level: Low to medium-loud.
The best of the food -- offered in small plates -- is simple and tasty. For something to nosh on with a glass of wine, the meat antipasto platter ($12) includes prosciutto, artichoke hearts, olives, roasted almonds and more. Ingredients are well-selected and portions were generous enough for three people to get a taste.
Creamy polenta cut into batons and pan-fried, then topped with an almost candy-sweet plum tomato sauce ($5, $8 with sausage) was an excellent dish, perfect in its simplicity. Their version of classic beans and greens (cup $3.50; bowl $7) was another hit, with its creamy white beans and a tiny hint of richness from the prosciutto garnish.
The "O" Insalata is a zesty mix of oranges, green olives and red onions ($7.50). While replacing the traditional fennel with red onion isn't necessarily an upgrade, the combination of flavors was solid. The oranges were juicy and sweet and the red onion slices had been rinsed to temper their overpowering flavor. A little more salt, pepper and olive oil would have transformed a good dish into a beautiful one.
The best dessert by far was a special of sliced strawberries and blueberries topped with a small cloud of zabaglione, that ethereal custard made from gently cooking whipped egg yolks, marsala wine and sugar ($7.50).
For all of its good qualities, this restaurant's accomplishments don't yet match its owners' aspirations. Some of the problems are superficial. Can anyone really say the words "the Naked Grape" with a straight face? From the Web site's design to the naming of dishes on the menu, there is so much "personality" that the simplicity of the main idea -- a restaurant with an extensive wine list paired with a small menu of rustic, Italian small plates -- is overwhelmed by it.
But a great restaurant can overcome a bad name. Unfortunately, most of the other dishes on the Naked Grape's menu didn't live up to the standards of the polenta or the zabaglione.
When a dish is miniaturized, presentation matters a lot. Pollo alla Antonio ($9.50) looked messy and unappetizing, the pale chicken blanketed under a coating of brown Corsican sauce, with only a sprig of spiky rosemary to add color to the drab plate. While it did taste a bit better than it looked, the chicken was overwhelmed by the sauce, which was too salty even without the prosciutto garnish. Underneath the salt, it was possible to detect the earthy, almost smoky flavor of porcini mushrooms.
A grilled eggplant dish, with the optional addition of sausage ($10), was more of a vegetable-enhanced tomato sauce served in a pile on a piece of bread. Smaller, more evenly cut pieces of vegetables would have made the dish more visually appealing. The sausage hadn't been properly browned, so it had an unpleasant, plastic-like sheen.
The kitchen also seemed to have a hard time adjusting to the smaller size of meat and fish filets. Salmon ($10) was substantially overcooked. A petite filet of beef ($13) was medium rare, but it tasted almost as if it had been cooked in an oven rather than seared on the stove top. The meat tasted strangely soft, almost wet, without the contrast between a browned crust and a tender interior.
While there are about as many tasty dishes as dull ones, the same ingredients and components are used too many times. Consequently, wine pairing suggestions don't vary as much as one might hope.
In a phone interview, Mirisciotti-Jungling emphasized that while server education was one of her top priorities, she was confident that the wine program was running smoothly. She mentioned that tasting pours and half-portions were readily available, and that if diners' needs were greater than a server's knowledge, she is always on hand to make recommendations.
That was not what I experienced. Mistakes in service and with the wine list suggest that having only one person with substantial wine knowledge isn't enough to ensure that things always run smoothly. Mirisciotti-Jungling was absent from the restaurant during both of my visits -- probably a coincidence, but an unfortunate one. Servers had to check about the option of a half-portion of wine and only once offered to bring a tasting pour.
When one guest asked for more information about three gruner veltliners on the list, the server could only describe them as "buttery" (they're listed on the menu under full-bodied, butter whites) and say that their quality was consistent with the prices -- $7, $8 and $15.50 per glass. After that endorsement, who's going to be able to enjoy the $8 glass? A late-harvest reisling from California ($10) was served in a brandy glass and tasted several days past its prime.
As a wine bar, the Naked Grape fills a gap in the market. Hopefully, with more time and more staff training it will do so with a little more confidence and panache.
China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or email@example.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman . Follow First Bites (openings) and The Buzz (coffee) and find maps to farmers' markets and outdoor dining venues at post-gazette.com/food.