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Permanent Vacation

Enoteca Emilia captures the essence of Italy thanks to Chef Jeremy Luers.

We lingered for a few minutes just inside Enoteca Emilia’s suggestion of a foyer, contemplating the hour-plus wait for a table versus our desperate need for sustenance.

We perused both rooms, quietly assessing how far along each table was in their meal. Plates of meats and cheeses, bowls of pasta, tin platters lined with thin-crusted pizzas, wine. Lots of wine. The rooms were lively, warm, chatty, and imbued with heady aromas. Everyone appeared to be unhurried, content to stay and enjoy each other a little longer. The way meals should be, and so often aren’t. We noticed a couple finishing wine at the bar, pulling on their coats. We hovered.

Our hunger was more than the desire for food. We had just returned from a vacation in Italy, and we were ravenous to keep the magic of those 11 days alive. So now, 20 minutes later, we had our noses buried in glasses of Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti. We breathed in notes of cherry, pepper, and chocolate; our imaginations took over. It was the scent of hillsides painted with vintage vineyards and silver olive groves, the aesthetic organization of cypress trees around sunbaked houses, medieval abbeys resonating with midday Gregorian chanting, Renaissance treasures, Byzantine mosaics, and centuries-old palazzos with frescoed domes. We inhaled Italy’s unpretentious, uncompromising way of life.

Enoteca Emilia’s name is inspired by the region of central Italy known as Emilia-Romagna (an enoteca is a wine shop or wine-centric restaurant). South of the river Po, bordered by the Apennine Mountains and Adriatic Sea, Emilia-Romagna’s palate is generous and luscious. Its regional specialties are defined by fertile land for grazing livestock and growing fruit and vegetables; by the sine qua non of fish and cured meats; by olive oil and syrupy, barrel-aged, balsamic vinegar; by simple rustic flatbreads and handmade and hand-rolled egg pastas.

It is the home of neighboring towns Parma and Reggio Emilia, the original territory for production of Parmigiano Reggiano, as well as Prosciutto di Parma, arguably Italy’s most popular cured meat. (In addition to a grain diet, the pigs feed on whey from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano, which lends a sweeter, fattier flavor to their meat and distinguishes it from other prosciuttos.) The heartbeat of Emilia-Romagna is the city of Bologna, whose fat-studded smoked sausage known as mortadella and the rousing rich meat sauce ragu alla Bolognese are partially responsible for its cult-like status as one of Italy’s major food centers.

It’s this unmistakable sense of place that preserves the culinary legacy of Emilia-Romagna, and it’s a big part of what makes a 5-month-old enoteca on a corner halfway around the world in Cincinnati, Ohio, feel like a restaurant with tradition and roots.

An element of that can be attributed to design. Enoteca Emilia’s owner, Margaret Ranalli, has transformed the building’s interior—which has housed a string of restaurants over the years, from Laura O’Bryon’s to The Brick Yard—and she’s pulled off the spare chic-without-the-effort look seemingly innate to Italian style.

Brick walls and a white-washed vaulted ceiling provide the backdrop for warm woods, soft ivory wallpaper, and sable leather, enlivened with several framed Italian landscapes and a large overhead canvas of purple onions near the kitchen entrance. (The artist, Marybeth Karaus, is the former owner of Joseph-Beth Booksellers, where Ranalli spent several years running operations for Brontë Bistro.) But the rudder of Enoteca Emilia is Chef Jeremy Luers, whose culinary aptitude demonstrates a just-right blend of liveliness and reverence, which translates into a sort of mission statement for the restaurant’s menu.

The 34-year-old Luers honed his skills at The Rookwood (where he created a stoner rock jam of a pork belly sandwich); Boca; and Babbo, Mario Batali’s pasta emporium in New York City. His paper placemat menu features casual small plates of bar snacks (cicchetti), salad (insalata), skewers (spiedini), sides (contorni), pasta, pizza, cured meats (salumi), cheeses (formaggi), and desserts (dolce).

Our midday meals in Italy were leisurely, spent dallying over plates of local salamis, aged cheeses, and carafes of vino della casa. I was at first drawn to Luers’s salumi and formaggi selections in an attempt to recreate that experience, and his careful selections inflamed my enthusiasm.

Slices of the lusty, garlic-scented, chianti-infused finocchiona, freckled with dried fennel seeds and peppercorns, are pure narcotic pleasure. Don’t be dismayed by the Salt Lake City, Utah, birthplace listed next to it; it’s made by the Creminelli family, who have been producing artisan meat products since the 1600s. The rich texture of nutty Parmigiano Reggiano; delicate, creamy robiolo; and pungent blue-veined gorgonzola contrast nicely with the featherweight crunch of Luers’s hand-rolled grissini (pencil-thin, long breadsticks), and the Prosciutto di Parma confidently evokes its homeland with a unique flavor I assign to the local air.

Still, all of these pale in comparison to the lardo and nduja, a combination of cured pork fatback (the lardo) and spicy, spreadable salami (the nduja) whipped into delectable submission and resonating like a bong hit in hog heaven. I spread it on the slices of crostini, and when those are gone run my finger around the inside of the ramekin. I am officially crazy about it.

If you shun excessive embellishment you’ll love Enoteca Emilia’s dishes. Luers’s presentation is relatively modest, with few frills and nothing extra on the plate that’s not intrinsic to the flavors. There’s no urge to gild a dish of polenta with a spray of greens. A cicchetti of two small peppers stuffed with leeks and creamy corn arrive on the plate devoid of brushstrokes or sauce paintings, thank you very much.

Don’t mistake this straightforwardness for a lack of sophistication. A contorno of cavalo nero (black leaf kale)

sautéed with olive oil and roasted garlic is as soulful as any of the chef’s more complicated pasta dishes. A generous squeeze of grilled lemon over two thin sticks threaded with shrimp, pork belly, and green onion and drizzled with salsa verde is as sexy as any dish I’ve eaten all year. Few of the dishes are truly revolutionary—you can see the influence of Luers’s mentors at Boca and Babbo (Mario Batali is credited with making popular the grilled style of pizza that Luers serves)—but that’s the point. They don’t need to be. They just need to be simple, satisfying, and celebratory.

Unexpectedly, friends have pulled up the two bar stools next to us. Coincidentally, they’ve also just returned from an Italian holiday. The four of us excitedly recount our experiences as we slide Luers’s luxurious duck liver pâté with a dollop of red onion marmalade in front of them. They order a quartino of Sicilian rosso and a duplicate of the pizza bianco topped with three cheeses, cauliflower, and an over-easy egg we’ve tried to savor slowly. They too stopped in Enoteca Emilia in hopes of keeping the vacation high going. It’s a serendipitous moment, underscored by what we know to have been the real magic of Italy—its appetite for life.

Enoteca Emilia
2038 Madison Rd., O’Bryonville
(513) 834-5773
Prices
Bar snacks, sides, pizza, pasta, salads, and sweets, $4–$18.
Atmosphere
Lively, casual, wine-centric restaurant with a focused menu of traditional (mostly) northern Italian dishes.

Originally published in the January 2012 issue.