Classic modern drama

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The transformation of the Cameron Mitchell-owned Martini Italian Bistro into Mitchell's newest "concept," Martini Modern Italian, is more pronounced than the samey-sounding names might indicate. In fact, it's dramatic. And the drama comes in steady, hefty doses.

Inside the two-weeks-opened Martini Modern, lighting is also flagrantly dramatic. It pops up in profuse eye-popping modes: a self-contained rectangular structure of tiny clustered lights shining atop a long, communal front-room table; a round-cornered, deep white light box completely crowning a starkly white bar; a trio of outsized chandeliers unusually encased in sheer voluminous cylinders; and colored glass vases underlit in decorative niches.

These variegated lighting styles help define Martini's separate and surprisingly individuated spaces. So there's the (sometimes) wild and boisterous white bar, the lively main dining chamber with its open kitchen, huge curvilinear pillars and hardwood floors, and then a more subdued, carpeted back room.

Overseen by a large crew of highly efficient, white-shirt-and-tied waiters wearing black rounded-neck vests, the overall effect is upscale and, well, modern. (A note to would-be fashionistas: Martini still borders a huge hockey arena -- so expect some CBJ jerseys.)

But the food, at least what I've tried, was not all about "the modern." In fact, by and large, it was refreshingly precise classic Italian cooking. Now while the meal I shared was impressive, the prices were on the high side for what's basically a great Italian Sunday dinner. So expect some real-deal Italian cuisine, but also expect to drop a C-note on a couple of drinks, appetizers and entrees.

On the slurping front, there's the expected overpriced wines, but also ambitious cocktails. My favorite libation was probably the Apricot Sage ($9), wherein a sage leaf lightly flavored a sweet-tart highball concocted with Woodford Reserve bourbon.

Commendably, each meal here starts with a too-soft but locally baked loaf of focaccia (from Stan Evans Bakery) served with olive oil dotted by balsamico and a companion bowl holding a vibrant, genuine pesto -- a great touch!

I'd be hard-pressed to find salad elements I like better than arugula, chopped marcona almonds, intensely fruity oven-roasted tomatoes, a shower of pecorino and a light, bright dressing perfectly applied. It's available here and it's a terrific starter for $8.

Disappointingly, way too many "Bolognese sauces" in Columbus are only meaty red sauces. Not here. Martini's encouragingly authentic turn was actually potatoey-flavored good gnocchi doused in a believable Bolognese that left a telltale orange stain and bore the sweetness (from dairy and carrots) it should.

Served, yes, dramatically, it was ceremoniously dished up tableside from a shiny covered saute pan and was offered with a mini-bowl of chili flakes and a fresh grating of parmesan. It was worth every bit of its $14 -- and then some. In fact, this would've been a great deal anywhere.

I liked the tuna entree, too ($27). Four exemplary, rare slabs were layered like collapsed dominos above gnocchi and peeled and pared root vegetables that got flavored with a deeply reduced, red-wine glaze. That one was both delicate and potent.

The vivid Veal Martini ($24) was two postcard-sized, pounded-thin and lightly floured sheets of meat. Adorned with lots of wide, flat slices of sauteed garlic (maybe a bit pushy but never bullying), the tender veal was prettily pan-fried and served with prosciutto plus a top-notch lemon-and-wine-based real piccata-type pan sauce.

Modern? Yeah, maybe in drama and look. But from its great, old-fashioned table-coddling service to its golden-oldie -- if authentic -- recipes, this place also trades heavily in classic.

Martini Modern Italian

445 N. High St., Short North 614-224-8259