For chef/owner John Iacofano, the marinara, well, it runs in his blood. He is a third-generation restaurateur following in the footsteps of his grandfather, also John Iacofano, who ran Johnny’s Room 24 outside Cleveland.
Cleveland is home to a strong Italian-American community, and I suspect that the photo of the First Communicants at Holy Rosary Church that hangs on the wall of Iacofano’s is a family treasure. You see, Holy Rosary Church is the heart and soul of Cleveland’s Little Italy. This was the city where the first home hand-cranked pasta machine was invented by Angelo Vitantonio, and the residents continue traditional celebrations and feast days.
Young John worked with his grandfather and father and set his sights on a culinary career. He went to Johnson & Wales University and in 2001 opened a deli in North Charleston and West Ashley. In 2005, he opened Iacofano’s in Mount Pleasant. Over the winter, he spruced up the interior and reopened as Iacofano’s Bistro & Bar.
On the menu? The staples of the Italian-American food culture along with a commitment to seasonal and local products. Look for produce from Ambrose, Blackbird and Thackeray family farms, catch of the day from Abundant Seafood and bread from Saffron Bakery.
Iacofano also has the Lunch Academy by Iacofano, Catered by Iacofano, Johnny Q’s BBQ and Oyster Roast Catering, and JLI Catering and Events.
With family roots in Campobasso in the region of Molise, Italy, you will see the liberal use of lamb in his cooking along with polenta, chile peppers and “diavolillo,” hot peppers.
This is a kitchen where the pasta is made from scratch, the mozzarella curds pulled by hand, the bacon smoked on premises and a patient hand stirs the polenta.
Our server was well-informed on the nuances of the menu and well-schooled in the preparations and presentation of each dish.
We began with a grilled calamari ($9) appetizer that was first rate. The squid was grilled and cut into strips and then finished with olive oil, lemon, pickled cherry peppers, oregano and chickpeas. It was garnished with fine chile pepper threads that lent a sweet heat to the dish. This tangle of squid was bold and fiery.
Not to be missed are the veal-ricotta meatballs ($7). Tender, flavorful orbs of ground veal are held together with ricotta cheese, simmered in a smooth tomato sauce and garnished with Pecorino Romano cheese. They also are available with house-made linguini ($16).
Salads are generous in size ($5-$9), and the spring season features a local strawberry and baby lettuce salad with hazelnuts, goat cheese and hibiscus vinaigrette ($8).
The menu is well-balanced with Italian classics such as old-school lasagna layered with sausage, lamb, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses ($17), as well as chicken parmesan ($16), linguini and meatballs ($16) and a seafood risotto ($23) with local shrimp and diver scallops.
The vegetables are local and seasonal, and the kitchen offers a seasonal vegetable plate for $14. Farro and polenta share equal billing with the pastas.
Our server’s favorite, grilled hanger steak ($21) with roasted cremini mushrooms and onions, was served sliced and plated over creamy polenta and sauced with a vin cotto reduction. The “cooked wine” was a bit sweet for my taste, but the dish was substantial and cooked as ordered.
The pan-roasted local flounder ($22) earned high marks for presentation and taste. A thick portion of fish was lightly crumbed and pan-seared. It was stacked over a green pea risotto and topped with a slaw of shaved fennel and radish. The flavors played off each other, and the hibiscus-honey vinaigrette brought the right notes of sweet and tart to the fish and rice.
Berkshire pork is featured in the pork belly ($20) and pork ragout ($12, $18); young chicken is simply grilled ($17) and finished with a lemon-thyme seasoned pan sauce.
The portions are generous, and most guests were seen leaving with leftovers in tow.
Bread is served warm and combines a crunchy crust and well-developed crumb and is the perfect foil for mopping up your plate, which you will be doing, as well as dipping in the seasoned oil amplified with cheese and chiles.
Morgan Vineyards, out of St. Helena, Calif., bottles the private label wine for the restaurant and it is nicely priced at $6.50 per glass, $22 per bottle.
Desserts are remarkably un-Italian: blueberry cheesecake, chocolate-hazelnut tart and an apple cake ($6) that we ordered. A bit of overkill there: apple cake, cream cheese frosting, whipped cream topping, salted caramel sauce and Boone Hall Farm’s strawberries. Too many tangled tastes on a slice of cake.
Chef Iacofano has brought new life to his former deli and presents careful preparations of humble Italian-American fare. He does his father and grandfather proud and celebrates the Lowcountry with local and seasonal sourcing.