976 Houston Northcutt Blvd.
It’s no secret that I love to eat at Al di La, the best little Italian trattoria that you can never get into West of the Ashley. The place just oozes everything that makes a restaurant great. When former Al di La cook and owner of the most authentic Italian name in the business, Michael Scognamiglio, struck out on his own, I eagerly anticipated trying his food. Had Bacco merely created a facsimile of John Marshall’s Al di La, the first restaurant in town that let you get authentic Italian for a reasonable price, then Mt. Pleasant would have gained another stellar addition, but with Bacco, Scognamiglio goes further. To step into his restaurant is to invite the entire boot of Italy, from tip to heel, into your stomach.
Comparisons to his former employer surely unnerve Scognamiglio. After all, going out on your own is all about creating your own vision. But even if Bacco bears some resemblance to Al di La, subtle differences help it stand apart. While Al di La’s menu explores the Italian north, the Piedmont’s rough mountain heritage, and the Po River Plain, Bacco heads out on a southern adventure, winding its way from Naples, to the tippy toes of the peninsula, and across the Sicilian isle.
Oranges invade the pork ($15); capers, pine nuts, and golden raisins scramble aboard big slabs of swordfish for a southern Mediterranean ride ($15); the “Melenzana alla Parmigiana” ($10) is actually worth eating — a rarity for the oft-maligned eggplant parmesan. Where else are you going to pick up smoked sausage wrapped with smoked mozzarella ($12), or find a big pile of steaming polenta smothered with little baby squid that have been braised in white wine until meltingly tender ($7)? Where are you going to find little plates of fire-roasted olives bathed in a sharp, citrusy oil for four bucks?
The pasta leaves the kitchen as fresh pasta should, with the softest of chews, so delectably fragile that someone accustomed to boxed macaroni might think it overcooked. The risotto shines with a sparkling vibrancy, fresh and reflective of its simple nature ($9/$12). It floats in the mouth with the slightest weight, full of fresh pea flavor and the smooth backbeat of small-grained rice, each mouthful reflecting the skill Scognamiglio honed under the watchful eyes of Marshall at Al di La.
And that’s really what makes Bacco such a splendid addition to the culinary scene. It takes all the good lessons of Scognamiglio’s tutelage and moves them into a culinary geography that lacks quality purveyors in the Charleston area. There is a reason that utterly simple design often produces the most beautiful results, and it’s the same reason that the world’s greatest cuisines often spring from the loins of poverty. Finery for its own sake clouds the spirit that the food itself strives to impart. Good chefs learn that they don’t create the foods as much as shepherd them along their way to perfection. They exist to coax the flavor from quality and they teach others how to do the same. They leave their ego at the door and simply make good food. One bite at Bacco proves that Michael Scognamiglio learned that lesson well. It’s a shame there aren’t more like him.