Editor’s Note: This restaurant closed in early September 2021, after the September 2021 issue went to press.
If you veer slightly off Route 42 in Florence, you’ll find Repertoire, in the corner of a secluded strip mall on Haines Drive. It sits on a slight hill, overlooking the taverns and chain restaurants of Florence’s main drag. This, it turns out, is fitting. Repertoire is both a familiar neighborhood spot and an outlier. Chef/owner Chris Baulo says as much on the restaurant’s website: “We are saturated with chain restaurants and ‘hole in the wall’ bars. All of this is great, but what if you don’t want to bring the kids or want a better experience without going to the city?” Repertoire is decidedly not a family restaurant.
Traipsing as it does from Kentucky to the Southwest, the menu cuts across America’s flavor-rich regions. This is the stated goal of the restaurant, which was inspired by Baulo’s travels. Baulo’s path to Repertoire was an eclectic one. He grew up in New Jersey, savoring the flavors and aromas of his grandmother’s Italian cooking (he started making meatballs at age 8 and graduated to the “gravy” at age 12), began his culinary career in New York City, worked for a few Michelin-starred restaurants in Puerto Rico, did a stint in Vegas, and traveled the country as a restaurant consultant for Harrah’s/ Caesars, all before landing in Florence. It’s hard to imagine a better résumé for a chef devoted to exploring the depth and breadth of American fine dining, and while Repertoire doesn’t turn the cuisine’s conventions inside out, it does playfully alter them.
The sleekly antique interior—shelves of old books at the entrance, obsolete card catalogues behind the bar, a rotary phone at the host table—features modern touches, such as comfortable neo-mod chairs, industrial light fixtures, and, in the back of the restaurant, a full-length mirror with water cascading over it. It’s a lot for such a small space to absorb, but it works to dramatically underscore Repertoire’s vintage aesthetic.
These juxtapositions are most fully realized with the first courses. It manifests in simple ways, like the addition of toasted pine nuts and little shallots to a crisp blue cheese salad. Or take Exhibit B: the diver scallops. Soft and meaty enough to stand on their own, Baulo enhances them with apple butter and vanilla oil, creating a kind of sweet, toasted sea cake that could almost be served at the end of the meal.
My favorite appetizer (in fact, my favorite dish on the entire menu) was the roasted quail. Wine-red split quail is served with a soft-boiled egg, potato crisp, bacon, and corn vinaigrette. The salty bacon and egg perfectly complement the tender, sweet quail, which was redolent of a good port wine. It’s the kind of appetizer you wish you didn’t have to share.
Like the appetizers, the entrée selection is small and focused. Curiously, there were no vegetarian entrées available on my visit. This was surprising because Baulo is something of a vegetable wizard. In fact, the vegetable sides often outshone the meat itself in many dishes. The “dirty” Brussels sprouts served with the petite filet mignon were slightly charred while soft and earthy, and left nothing to be desired. Same for the smashed potatoes, which were salty and crispy like skin-on potato pancakes.
The pork tomahawk, a hefty chop with a brown sugar brine and bacon jam, was almost as soft and juicy as the filet. Whether this speaks well for the chop or poorly for the filet is up for debate, but I would direct all hardcore carnivores to this entrée forthwith. As good as the chop was, the real star of the plate was the southern style greens. When I say they tasted like bacon, I don’t merely mean that they were bacon flavored; they were so savory and unctuous you wouldn’t be surprised to hear a telltale sizzle while eating them. They were a delightful surprise, and a lip-smacking example of the subtle whimsy of Baulo’s menu. Repertoire does best while at play.
The fish entrées were not as impressive (the Chilean sea bass and the Patagonian fish had promising premises but lacked in execution) but the “Young Chicken” was exceptional. Sweetened with a dollop of caramelized onion gravy, the chicken was crisp and cleanly fried, providing a satisfying crunch with each bite, one the roasted potatoes intensified. The roasted broccolini side was, like the Brussels sprouts, charred to perfection. Between the chicken and the quail, one wonders what other flavors Baulo can coax from a bird.
Repertoire doesn’t have a dessert menu, but it does have a selection of sweets that change weekly. The coconut cheesecake was light and creamy, with toasted coconut being the most pronounced flavor. It was a satisfying end to a savory meal, one that made me wish the restaurant had a full-fledged pastry program.
It’s a place that seems destined to evolve, given Baulo’s apparent obsession with tinkering. The beauty is in the slight alterations, whether it’s a vanilla infusion in the diver scallops or a bacon fat bath for the collards. While some dishes miss the mark, the ones that hit, hit boldly. The restaurant, with its cocktail hour vibes, might not be a place to bring the kids and, in a way, that’s a shame. For anyone looking to move their kids out of the cozy confines of chain restaurant dining toward the tastier fringes of American cuisine, Repertoire would be a fine place to start.
REPERTOIRE, Y’ALL (From left) The restaurant’s main dining area; pan-seared diver scallops with sweet pea and summer truffle risotto; Chef Chris Baulo; one of Repertoire’s “desserts of the week.”
Repertoire, 8645 Haines Dr., Suite A, Florence, (859) 817-0146.