The culinary latitude and longitude has shifted on the corner that chef Ken Vedrinski originally established as a restaurant. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths have replaced the racing silks of Siena; the cuisine of Tuscany is pre-empted by that of Apulia, Campania and Sicily. Ristorante LIDI, the current resident, proudly displays its moniker: "Little Italy Daniel Island."
Chef/owner Jason Colon's career has been on an Italian trajectory since he opened Gusttimo di Roma cafes in Singapore, China, Korea and Japan. Boston brought him to the stoves of Mare (Italian seafood), the Armani Cafe on renowned Newbury Street; then to 'Cesca in Manhattan where he was groomed for opening 'Cesca in downtown Charleston.
Now calling Daniel Island home, Colon, along with general manager Scott Sankar and sous chef Steve Davison are committed to providing high quality Italian-American dining with value-added price points. La famiglia stirs the pot at this operation. "Not fancy, not fussy, but for families" are Colon's goals.
Dan Sweeney of Stumphouse Architecture and Design was hired to "let in the light" and transform the space once home to two very different restaurants, both challenged by the footprint and HVAC systems, into a comforting Italian-American "ristorante."
Sweeney succeeded in creating a home-style ambiance at LIDI. The once-awkward hyphen between the dining room and the bar (now called Bacaro) is illuminated with white string lights and staged with high-top tables, and the space bridges well between the family-style dining room and the energy of the bar, which is backlit with a wall of color.
Local artist Sophie Nemethy was commissioned to produce murals for the building's exterior. Homages to canals and vibrant city street life breathe dimension into this singular standing building. The black-canopied entry feels very old-school and harmonizes well with LIDI's playlist of Frank, Dino, Sammy and the Rat Pack crooners.
Repurposed cypress planks, white-washed paneling and cherry tomato-color faux leather upholstery awaken the space whose open kitchen remains from its previous tenants.
A chef's table is at the pass, a great location to watch the staff in action and maybe garner some tastings.
Begin your meal with a refreshing Aperol spritz or LIDI's signature house-infused basil-vodka gimlet. Moretti is on draught and the wine list hews to an Italian cellar. Its weakness? The limited number of wines by the glass. This is where a quartino program would pay dividends for LIDI and the guests.
The restaurant's menu embraces Italy to the north and the south. Its "per la tavola" or for the table items lend themselves to sharing and are an easy way to try a variety of dishes. Sausage-stuffed mushrooms, breaded cubes of mozzarella spiedini, or Sicilian-inspired arancini would be worthy starters.
Colon has made an effort to source his menu well with Tom Cat bread and Amoroso's rolls, Le Ferre private label olive oil, pastas from Marovato Italian Imports out of Puglia and distributed by Roy Nobile, Fabrizia limoncello and blood orange liqueurs, house-made pastas, hand-pulled mozzarella cheese and even gelato imported from Italy.
The pricing strategy favors families. There is a children's menu and portions sized for the table. Kudos for accompanying the secondi with vegetables, a pasta, or potatoes.
Odd though that a classic dish such as ossobuco, one of the few in Italy that comes with its prescribed side - risotto Milanese and gremolata - is served with mashed potatoes (although regions outside of Milan serve it with potatoes or polenta).
Pasta portions are American-entree sized and generous in their quantity. The lasagna is a Northern Italian classic layered with ragu Bolognese and besciamella; the ravioli, a minimalist pillow of cheese sauced with marinara and garnished with torn leaves of basil, all the better to keep the fragrance and flavor. A guest at a neighboring table gave high marks to the gnocchi Bolognese, which was frail and light - all good when it comes to potato dumplings.
Although our waiter could not define a "NY style" meatball, the kitchen at LIDI does an admirable job producing tender, well-seasoned polpette. And you can have it Italian style and order meatballs a la carte (polpette) or you can have it Italian-American style and order spaghetti and meatballs. Either way, you will not be disappointed.
Mini meatballs are tendered in wedding soup, a minestra (soup) more about the marriage of meats and vegetables (maritata minestra) in soup than brides and grooms. They bring that same polpette succulence to this primi that is marred only by the egg white foam coagulated among the bright carrots and spinach greens.
LIDI provides no culinary revisionism. Here you will find the acid pulp of tomatoes bracing sauces and ragus. A menu plotted with old-school classics: lasagna, ravioli, scampi, seafood marinara, antipasti of meat and cheese and pickled vegetables.
Chicken or veal cutlets can be ordered in the style of parmesan, Marsala, picatta and Milanese.
They will be buttressed against a side of linguini, unless the kitchen forgets. Which was surprising. With a chef at the pass, every dish should have had his eyes.
But that is one weakness of LIDI: distraction. It can happen in the kitchen with dishes where the excess of salt marked the early days. Now this galvanizing seasoning seemed abandoned in a veal dish, a pasta dish and the soup.
And your appetite will not be sabotaged by bread because even though a bottle of Le Ferre is on every table as well as a saucer for the oil, it was not offered to us or to the guests who sat nearby. And when your dining companion requires fa la scarpetta - bread to mop up sauces and essences - there is another kind of distraction.
As the dining room fills and the pace picks up, the attentiveness slackens.
Desserts parlay the American sweet tooth with dolci: ricotta cheesecake, tiramisu, cannoli, a flourless chocolate cake and gelato. Portions again are "abbodante": three scoops of gelato, two full-size cannoli.
Committed ambition characterizes Colon's operation. There are missteps. But for a chef/owner who believes "at the table, no one grows old," there is time to correct. And when it comes to pasta, the Lowcountry has patience.