It’s typically not a good sign when your mind wanders outside of a restaurant during a meal.
But I kept catching myself at Renzo imagining the streetscape into which such a restaurant would be expected to fit. Suffice to say, it wouldn’t look much like Huger Street. Despite the small-scale food businesses popping up between its clapboard houses, in the minds of many Charlestonians, Huger is still nothing but an Interstate 26 on-ramp.
By contrast, Renzo, or more properly, Renzo Wood-Fired Pizza & Natural Wine, feels like it belongs on a big-city block where everybody walks and probably visits art galleries and reads poetry on a regular basis. Brooklyn? Sure. Berlin? Could be. Charleston, north of the Crosstown? That’s definitely a stretch.
On each of my three visits to Erik and Nayda Hutson’s new restaurant, situated almost directly across the street from their low-slung neighborhood bar, Faculty Lounge, I tried to figure out what accounted for that not-here feeling.
It wasn’t the kitchen’s fluency in ingredients that a decade or so ago were exclusive to Italian groceries and home pantries, since chefs around town have a good handle on Cerignola olives and Scamorza cheese. Nor was the decor the obvious culprit: Globular light fixtures, thin-legged bar stools and streamlined tables have urban implications, but Charleston isn’t exactly a capital of farm chic.
Finally, I realized the cause of Renzo’s cosmopolitan vibe couldn’t be tasted or seen. Rather, it reflects the Hutsons’ propensity to let their customers set the room’s tone. In Charleston, where it takes mounds of money to open a restaurant, most dining rooms are predetermined down to the littlest detail: Orchestrating the customer experience in advance is one way to keep risk and worried investors at bay. It also usually results in something boring, which Renzo is not.
Every time I went to Renzo, I was surrounded by members of the local creative class, which I’d always thought was more of a rumor than a legitimate demographic. Of course, Faculty Lounge gave the Hutsons a head start on its clientele, but it seems like they mostly cultivated their engaged customer base by doing nothing at all. No wonder Nayda Hutson is so fond of natural wine: She’s running a minimal intervention dining room, and the strategy is working magnificently.
OK, maybe “nothing” is overstating the case. Just as natural winemakers keep a close watch on their vineyards to make sure conditions are primed for grapes to flourish, the Hutsons have created a warm and welcoming space. It’s not trivial that their staff is more racially diverse than most downtown crews. Also among their insightful hires: Evan Gaudreau, an exceptionally talented chef who previously worked at Xiao Bao Biscuit and The Ordinary.
Mood and messaging aside, Renzo succeeds because the food is great. Granted, I’m about six weeks behind the actual calendar for professional purposes, but Renzo is the first new restaurant I’ve encountered in 2018 that’s a shoo-in for December lists recapping the year’s most significant openings.
The heart of Renzo’s menu is pizza. It’s baked in a wood-fired oven, apparent from the dusting of char a slice leaves on the fingertips and wisp of smoke flavor that swirls through the various topping collections. Renzo has come up with seven combinations, ranging from basic to baroque. Perhaps the most eye-catching of the latter is the garlicky Mayor Quimby, embellished with littleneck clams and tufts of surprisingly hardy fava greens. What’s not mentioned on the menu, though, is a generous dousing of listless clam nage. The white wine cream sauce is a tad too rich for the springy crust beneath it.
Crust puff is something of a parlor trick in this instance, because the dough is naturally leavened. That means Gaudreau isn’t using any kind of packaged yeast to help the rise along. Still, there’s a bubbly quality to his pies that perfectly mirrors the bubbles in the sparkling wines that servers like to recommend. It’s a lively pairing, in the most literal sense.
Should you prefer pizza with yeast, Renzo keeps the deactivated variety on hand. It’s one of the toppings that defines the vegan Suarez pie. As an alumnus of college co-op dining, I really want to believe there’s a place in finer restaurants for nutritional yeast, but I’m not sure Renzo has found it. To fully appreciate the accomplished crust, consider instead a smart assemblage of lamb, zhug and yogurt, sold as the Shabazi.
Still, the sadly limited utility of nutritional yeast doesn’t mean there isn’t magic in the thought-out sprinkle. One of four available snacks is bottarga popcorn, lightly dressed with garlic butter and garnished with salty, aromatic cured roe. It’s the perfect starter, if only because much of what’s ahead is as polished and dramatic as theater.
One of the most striking dishes, also classified as a snack, features five pink grapefruit segments, snuggled up against each other like so many sleeping piglets. But where each supremed piece of citrus once wore a rind, there’s a curl of white anchovy. Everything is oiled and black peppered in perfect proportion. It’s a joint triumph of two critical cooking skills: Ingredient selection and controlled technique. Deliciousness is inevitable.
Bucatini overburdened with breadcrumbs was a rare disappointment. Between a dry tomato sauce and the pasta’s barely perceptible piercing, it didn’t offer any of the inside-outside slurpiness that typically makes the shape so special. So the other pasta on the menu was even more of a showstopper when it arrived.
Ethereal is almost too sturdy of a description for the delicate agnolotti, enveloping tangy cow’s milk cheese. Drizzled with olive oil and sweet honey, which gives the pasta a golden glow, the dish is subtly Edenic, with a scattering of magenta flower petals and split black olives that live up to their categorization as fruit. It’s the sort of preparation that makes you feel sorry for people who snub cookbooks, since no amateur is likely to come up with anything like it.
It’s not all so high-minded. The kefir-based ranch that undergirds roasted radishes and preserved lemon strips has an irresistible zing, and for dessert, there’s ice cream.
The menu lists a guava sundae, but there’s also a DIY option: My server recommended a scoop of ricotta ice cream and a scoop of roasted strawberry, blitzed with crumbled honeycomb candy. The overall effect is creamy and crunchy and the slightest bit fizzy, but you may well prefer sunchoke caramel ice cream with freeze-dried mangos, or Fernet ice cream with rainbow nonpareils. It’s only fitting that the final bite at Renzo is left up to the customer’s devising.