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Review: Melfi's in Charleston demonstrates why America shouldn't give up on restaurants

Melfi’s is the third restaurant that Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink have opened on the short strand of Upper King Street bounded by Congress and Sumter streets, which means I’ve paid their establishments no fewer than a dozen review visits since Leon’s Oyster Shop furled its garage door in 2014. And if you add in all of the times I’ve taken out-of-towners to Little Jack’s or listened to pitches over lunch at Leon’s, I’d peg my meal total at somewhere around 40.

As far as I know, parent company Neighbourhood doesn’t run any kind of frequent diner rewards program, so the above hasn’t earned me a set of seated dog salt-and-pepper shakers, or an autographed 8-by-10 glossy of doorman Pasquale Conway. But those visits have afforded me plenty of opportunity to find fault with the operations.

I’ve pretty much come up empty. At Melfi’s, though, I think I may have finally uncovered a reason to cultivate a grudge.

It’s my contention that restaurants aren’t long for this world. (Fair warning: If you invite me to a dinner party and conversation stalls, this is the topic I’ll start in on.) Except in very specific circumstances, the economics of high-end dining don’t make sense for workers, owners or patrons. Nor is the format conducive to careful, delicate cooking, which is why I suspect the big shots will revert to hiring chefs for their home kitchens, while the rest of us get by on Blue Apron.

Yet that scenario only comes to pass if the public decides the restaurant-going experience isn’t special enough to save. The problem with Melfi’s is I can’t imagine any of its customers reaching that conclusion. Through a very savvy combination of service and design, the restaurant has achieved the kind of convivial atmosphere and sophistication that’s near impossible to replicate at home. Melfi’s hasn’t just breathed life into the notion of dining out: It’s given it a couple of chest compressions, and probably ensured its immortality. Thanks, Melfi’s, for throwing cold water on a perfectly good hot take.

Speaking of beverages, did I mention that Melfi’s serves Italian food? Fun is so central to an evening at Melfi’s that it’s regrettably easy to overlook the creamy floes of hand-pulled buffalo milk cheese cresting atop a thin-crust pizza, or the dazzling interplay of honey and crushed red peppers on bruschetta cushioned with thick ricotta. It’s telling that Melfi’s on most nights doesn’t play music, presumably because there is no dining room sound more seductive than a bunch of people having a good time.

To be fair, not everyone will have the time of their lives at Melfi’s. This is not a restaurant for families, as Melfi’s website clarifies in at least three places for parents who might have been blinded by promises of pizza: It’s a “grown-up restaurant ... for proper adults,” where high chairs and strollers are prohibited. Nor is it the right place for diners highly protective of their personal space: The distance between certain tables measures about a spaghetto across. Finally, Melfi’s aesthetic charms command a price: If you can’t tolerate paying for intangibles such as diffused light and the gleam of an espresso machine, you’ll be boggled by the bill.

But if you’re not encumbered by children, claustrophobia or a middle-class paycheck, right this way, please. There are more thoughtful details in the brick-walled dining room than you’re likely to catch over the course of one visit, but the throwback vibe insinuated by the green-and-white striped awning out front is amplified by indoor fixtures you can’t miss.

Should you be seated in the moss green leather banquette that runs the length of the room, for example, you’ll have a view of the imposing art deco bar, replete with rounded arches, mirrors and polished wood, and chrome-legged chairs slid beneath tables draped in white linen. Immediately before you, you’ll find a brass tabletop lamp and a white porcelain plate stamped with Melfi’s name in script. Anyone in the habit of chomping cigars would instantly recognize this as some kind of classy joint.

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He or she would probably dote on the menu, too, starting with a cocktail list that comprises 15 well-balanced drinks. Almost half of them are Negroni variations, including a pert shaken-up sour. The compact wine list ably covers the classic Italian varietals, but it’s worth revisiting the cocktail selection at meal’s end for a bracing Italian grasshopper made with Branca Menta, a minty amaro, rather than creme de menthe syrup.

Chef John Amato is responsible for the dishes between those bookends. There isn’t an obvious headliner among them, partly because the kitchen on my visits ran into a couple of reproduction snags. “Beautiful salad” at first seemed like too modest a menu designation for a tumble of sheerly dressed lettuces with strips of rich prosciutto and taut bullets of peas; on a second go, when the greens weren’t quite as fresh, the adjective seemed like a stretch. On another night, a stunning vitello tonnato also struggled with its encore: The silky tuna sauce hadn’t lost any of its savory anchovy clout, but the formerly delicate veal was disappointingly mealy.

Still, it seems equally likely that Amato wasn’t keen to hitch the restaurant to a single signature dish after churning out a bazillion tavern burgers at Little Jack’s. Instead, he’s spread the goodness around, making it easy to assemble a spread of delectable things to eat.

A server on one occasion looked confused by an order of wood-fired peppers, which likely get less customer love than their menu section mates, including fried zucchini and braised artichokes lavished with olive oil. That’s a shame, since the stoplight-red curls of slick roasted peppers are terrific, and made doubly so by knobs of garlic; nubs of mozzarella and little basil leaves. If Queen Margherita had been given a choice, she might have picked this antipasto over the pizza that now bears her name.

At Melfi’s, where the pies are inspired by modern Roman practices, the topping collections are exuberantly elaborate: Consider the Iceberg Slim, which consists of bacon, lettuce and tomato, plus cheese, plus ranch. In the end, the point of a Melfi’s pizza is the crunch of the crust.

Experiments with noodle shapes and sauces are apparently ongoing, which is encouraging: Pasta is currently the most vexed section of Melfi’s menu, with gloopy sauces and indistinct flavors a recurrent issue. But the entrees – a category that some new restaurants now reject entirely as overly retro – are spot on. Tender lamb chops, fragranced by a garlicky green sauce that cleaves to their crust, teem with vigor. Aromatics also help make a dish as potentially frumpy as chicken cacciatore downright magnetic: Its slow-cooked gravy is sweet with garden vegetables.

Of course, anyone could simmer tomato sauce at home. But after an evening at Melfi’s, it’s not clear why anyone would want to.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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