In a town teaming with establishments serving small, thoughtful, farm-to-table dishes, it’s hard to stand out. Renzo, employing a seeming mantra of originality squared, has found a niche. It’s the bastard child of a well-heeled Spanish/Italian chef and a mad scientist. Not surprisingly, the menu is a bit of a vocab test, even for diehard foodies. All the same, it’s a welcome education and a likely introduction to some things you’ve never had before… Or at least not in the same mouthful.
Case in point, the boquerones ($8). These Spanish-style vinegar-cured anchovies are often served tapas-style, on toasted bread with grated tomato and extra virgin olive oil. Here, the olive oil remains, but the small, piquant fish are wrapped around juicy pink grapefruit slices and topped with a heaping helping of ground black pepper. Make sure to include enough olive oil in each bite, as it’s a strong and acidic combination that kind of has to grow on you. My dining companion went from hating it to loving it in just two bites. Proof of the importance of getting all the ingredients in one mouthful, as the sour, acidic start soon transforms in a way that’s at once unexpected and sublime.
The roasted radishes ($5) are a known associate. Mellowed from the heat, but still possessed of a bitter finish, the seven small pieces of root vegetable harmonize with the mellow kefir-based ranch dressing. Further garnished with preserved lemon, it’s a comforting, yet elegant dish.
Similarly, Renzo itself is small, but stylish. Quietly standing out amongst its residential Huger Street neighbors, inside the renovated Charleston single there’s a sizable gold-plated bar, plus a few booths and limited table seating. Groups of three and even four can be seen crowded around tiny marble tables, like underage guests at a hip house party; just happy to be there.
The staff also seems happy to be there. And paired with their flawless menu knowledge, the positive attitudes, and unobtrusive attention make the experience that much better.
The Renzo menu is about half pizza, but — perhaps not surprisingly — originality squared is also in full force here. There’s a margherita ($10) option to satisfy the pursists, but that’s where the familiarity ends. Not quite as pop culture wink-winky as the offerings at Moe’s franchise, it comes close with names like the Hawaiian-ish Johnny Tsunami ($14) and medjool date-bearing Wrath of Kahan ($14).
By that token, the Mayor Quimby ($16) immediately brings to mind the Boston pronunciation of ‘chowder,’ and even chowder itself. Potentially the inspiration, it features a creamy bechamel sauce topped with mild cheese, bitter chard, and browned garlic. Although it would be understandable, don’t forget the four tiny clams, a portion so tiny it registers more like a garnish. Vegetarians could easily leave them off and miss out on nothing. Served with a lemon wedge, the Quimby is a pleasing, dairy-rich option.
The Shabazi ($14), however, is where the rubber meets the road. The same heavily charred, chewy crust is topped with a vinegary tomato sauce and dotted with ground lamb balls. From there it’s finished with a generous portion of fresh parsley, mint, and purple basil. “That doesn’t sound like much of a pizza,” you might muse. And I’d be inclined to agree, but for the accompanying small dish of yogurt and zhug, a green Yemenite hot sauce. Made with garlic, parsley, and cilantro, along with olive oil and Thai bird chiles, it’s the Girls Gone Wild version of chimichurri, and it’s explosive. If you can take the heat — and it’s formidable — you’ll likely wonder where zhug has been all your life. The base of the crust is covered with the burned cornmeal remains of pizzas prior and it’d be nice if they could address that, but it’s still a stellar pie.
Along with wood-fired pizza, Renzo hangs its hat on natural wine. There’s a thoughtful selection of bottles, plus a smattering of European-focused options by the glass. Along with unusual beer choices and a handful of amaro herbal liqueurs, you’re likely to discover something new and hopefully to your liking.
Realistically, caesar salad ($12) is never really anything more than caesar salad, but Renzo pushes the envelope. Made with long, thin slices of kohlrabi and celery, as well as little gem lettuce leaves, it’s coated in a pungent anchovy dressing. Served topped with pumpkin and sesame seeds, plus grated cured egg yolks, it’s one of the better caesars I’ve tried and perhaps the best item on the menu. And that’s saying something.
The agnolotti ($16) is also quite special, albeit fun-sized. Really, really ridiculously good-looking, the five small pillowy pasta squares are filled with creamy, robust castelrosso cheese. Funky, yet sweet, it pairs beautifully with the syrupy honey sauce. Although I could personally do without the salty oil-cured black olives and beautiful, bitter edible flowers, the photo op is undeniable.
Likewise, the sunburst trout conserva ($15) is as carefully executed as it looks. Described by the server as being like a deconstructed bagel and lox, the oil-cured fish is clean and simple. It’s plated with cool, creamy creme fraiche and topped with a flower-heavy parsley salad, which is acerbic, but pretty. Accompanied by six house-made crackers covered in poppy seeds and coarse-grain salt, this DIY dish is a winner.
Undeniably deliberate, yet prone to (successful) flights of fancy, Renzo has hit the ground running. With a spot-on mix of style and flavor, I just want to kiss it, and I don’t even care who sees me.