When planning a night of fine dining in Iowa City, one often gravitates north. The Motley Cow, Devotay and Linn Street Café have built their reputations on serving elevated cuisine with a focus on local flavor. But there’s a downtown option that offers classic upscale Italian fare in an atmosphere that counters the Northside’s trendy ambiance with a traditional, elegant setting.
Baroncini Ristorante is tucked in a cubbyhole just next door to Chili Yummy near the corner of Linn and Iowa. My party arrived around 8 p.m. without a reservation on a Friday, and we were lucky to get a seat. Though it is a small space with limited seating, the fact that it was packed on the day after Valentine’s Day was taken as a good sign.
We kicked off the evening with two appetizers, one of which ended up being my favorite dish of the night. The smoked salmon with gorgonzola mousse and carrot and onion salad—or as they say at Baroncini, the Salmone Affumicato con Insalata di Carote e Erba Cippolina e Mousse al Gorgonzola—featured house-smoked salmon that was utterly melt-in-your-mouth. The fish was very subtly smoked, moist and delicate and sprinkled with salty black caviar. The portion was generous, although there weren’t enough of the tiny breads served alongside to carry all of the cheese or salmon. The onion and carrot salad lent a refreshing tang to the richness of the dish. Bellisima!
Our accompanying appetizer, the Bruschetta Alla Caprese featured mozzarella balls, good balsamic and pungent, fresh basil—but ordering this dish out-of-season was my faux pas, as the tomatoes were exactly what you’d expect of February tomatoes in Iowa.
For an entrée, I ordered a classic Tagliolini Al Frutti Di Mare. The “narrow fettuccini” (read: angel hair) was served with a light seafood sauce and loaded with shrimp, crawfish, scallops, calamari and mussels. The perfectly al dente housemade pasta was served with just the right amount of sauce. The scallops were the best bite—while small, they were fresh and buttery.
On a Friday night, our server was busy, and it took some time to get our plates cleared and water filled. The small tables at the front of the restaurant were pretty close together, so there was a dangerously small amount of arm space. If you enjoy gesticulating, you may want to request a booth when you make your reservation.
I tend to judge a restaurant’s cleanliness by its bathrooms, and the ladies room was cool and spotless. My only complaint was the photograph of Sophia Loren at her porcelain-skinned prime hanging opposite the mirror. Note to the management: No woman on earth wants to powder her nose with her face reflected next to one of the most beautiful women who ever walked the earth.
Our post-Valentine’s day feast nearly complete, we opted in for dessert. We selected the Gelato Affogato Con Espresso e il Biscotto Toscano based on the fact that seemingly everyone else in the restaurant was having it. Served in a rather ostentatious martini glass, this dessert did not disappoint: Vanilla ice cream suspended in a moat of warm espresso dribbled with dark chocolate sauce and garnished with a homemade biscotti. The ice cream, melted by the warmth of the espresso, puddled into the chocolate and created a slurry reminiscent of the dregs of a hot fudge sundae. Silly glass or not, I could barely hold myself back.
As we left the restaurant sated and slightly espresso-buzzed, I couldn’t have wished for a lovelier evening out. Next time you’re craving some killer Italian, or considering a special night out, give Baroncini a try.
Photo via www.baroncinirestaurant.com