Known for his highly visible precense at Apicius, where he oversaw day-to-day management and worked in the kitchen alongside his staff, Balestrieri's reputation for confronting patrons -- even asking diners to leave his establishment -- became a deterrent for many would-be customers.
Offering boutique-style fare -- and available for chef's table service featuring pricey, imported ingredients with made-on-the-minute preparation -- gave Balestrieri's cuisine a price tag to match, a point often disputed with patrons surprised by large tabs come the end of the night.
With such unmatched quality -- the likes you'd find in high-end establishments that grace the streets of Manhattan and Los Angeles -- Apicius' lofty ambitions were lost on the quiet streets of the small-town Lantana dining scene.
"When the menu says market price, and I'm using ingredients like shaved white truffles, caviar, and U3 Madagascar prawns, don't complain when the bill comes out more than you expected," said Balestrieri. "So, I'm done. I'm an artist. If the attention to detail is not appreciated, or understood, I'm going to just give them what they want."
And what they want has translated to Apicius' transformation into Bar Italia, a still-upscale Italian restaurant with prices that won't break the bank.
"You'll still get the 'wow' factor -- just not in your pocket." -- Leopold Balestrieri, chef and creative genius behind the new Bar Italia in Lantana
Although he won't give details, Balestrieri says he sold Apicius to a Manhattan-based restaurant group that owns several high-profile NYC establishments specializing in Italian and French cuisine. Despite new management and ownership, Balestrieri still has a hand in the new venture having been asked to give his creative input on the Bar Italia menu, a move that has allowed many of his signature dishes from Apicius to remain mainstay highlights.
The only difference: no more super premium ingredients to burn a whole in your pocket. But there will still be high-quality ingredients, including forest mushrooms and imported cheese. That means popular dishes, like the Branzino del Giorno ($39), will no longer feature a caviar sauce -- as it did a la Apicius -- but will continue to be cleaned at the table for an unforgettable presentation. And pastas, like the Tagliolini del Bosco ($26), will replace pricey porcini with specialty forest mushrooms.
"It will have the feel and price of say, a Vic and Angelo's
," said Balestrieri. "But there will still be quality. Like a grandmother's kitchen -- well-priced soul food."
Bar Italia's menu includes a large appetizer selection followed by main plates featuring pasta, fish and meats, all ranging from $12 to $45 per plate. There will also be a pizza menu giving patrons a true Neopolitan-style experience with an imported Italian oven (able to cook a pie in less than three minutes), imported sheep's milk cheese, and Balestrieri's own 40-year-old, Naples-originated yeast for the dough.
Say you're in the mood for some simpler fare. Bar Italia has a few straightforward dishes, including a truly amazing burger. Get the specialty short-rib beef cooked any way you like, but kick it up a notch the way its found on the menu with caramelized onions, pan-seared forest mushrooms, gorgonzola dolce and crispy specks (smoked Italian meat the equivalent to bacon), all stacked between two slices of fresh brioche ($18).
Pair it with a glass of wine from a still-impressive menu that draws from Apicius' extensive wine cellar, offering 26 wines by the glass ($10-$20), and over 200 bottles ($40-$195).
But perhaps the best part of Bar Italia will be its happy hour, which begins TOMORROW (Friday, June 10) starting at 5 p.m. What Balistrieri calls "one of the best happy hours" in the area, all drinks and food from the specialty bar menu will be 2-for-1. It's a special you can find Monday through Friday from open to close (5 p.m. to 1 a.m.). And with 2-ounce pours on liquor, and 8-ounce pours on wines, it's almost double the amount you'll find at other bars offering similar deals.
INSIDER'S TIP: Free happy hour apps! Get to Bar Italia early to sample a taste of their free spinelli skewers, skinny Italian-style kabobs of chicken, beef and lamb Balistrieri marinates the day before in a fragrant olive oil and herb concoction including rosemary, parsley and basil fresh from the on-site herb garden. They'll be served with a pureed lemon sauce, a complimentary hand-out (along with other select finger foods) for happy hour patrons only.
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