Restaurant Review: Plate

Kristen Schmidt
Traditional Beef and Tomato Lasagna

There's a pizza restaurant in La Spezia, Italy, that doesn't look like much on the outside. Actually, it doesn't look like much inside, either. Nearly everything about it was forgettable. But not the pizza. The tangy sauce, the salty molten cheese and the crust, blistered on the surface and chewy with some tug inside, made one of those flavor memories you can recall on command.

Plate, a new restaurant in New Albany, is making this kind of pizza, and you should go eat it. Maybe you won't be transported to Italy, but you will be happy. Order the Traditional pizza ($10.49 for a 12-inch pie)-just San Marzano tomato sauce, mozzarella and provolone cheeses and the slightest sprinkling of bright herbs. Eat your first bites a few seconds before you think it's safe-in the sweet spot of time between a scalded tongue and melty perfection. Decline any offer to sully it with pepperoni or some other nonsense. That's not to say you shouldn't try other pizzas, but keep this one unadorned to appreciate its simplicity.

Italian foods (and other foods cooked using Italian techniques) succeed or fail based on the quality of their typically few ingredients. It's simple food, but it's not easy food. At its best, Italian food is greater than the sum of its parts. Plate finds a lot of success in applying this tradition to pasta and pizza, yes, but also to other straight-up American foods like pork chops and slow-roasted chicken. Even oldie-but-goodie Caesar salad ($4.99 for a small portion) gets a flavor-bomb reboot when it's stripped down to its garlicky soul.

Beyond the food, Plate is giving diners an experience they crave but can find in too few places these days-an atmosphere that is polished without feeling manufactured and service that is kind and honest. Customers play a role in this big picture, too. There's a familiarity among them, and it's not unusual to see one customer stop at another's table to say hello. This is a place where parents can bring small children, buddies can meet at the bar to catch the game and couples can share a romantic dinner. More importantly, all those people can do all those things at the same time without interference.

And you won't want to be interrupted while digging into Plate's Traditional Beef and Tomato Lasagna ($13.99), a hefty block of pasta layered with ground beef and cheese and surrounded by tomato and bechamel sauces. What a bechamel it is, too, with textbook-perfect body, pooling languidly in the bowl without turning soupy.

Pastas are made in the restaurant; the lasagna noodles were tender and distinctly more delicate than the mass-produced stuff. Gnocchi ($13.99) are handmade, too. At Plate, they are thumb-tip sized pillows-not the dense knobs you find in those vacuum-sealed packages-served in a puddle of corn and white truffle coulis with asparagus tips, smoked bacon, corn, peas and ricotta salata. As if advertising chef-owner Alfonso Contrisciani's farm-to-plate message, some of the corn kernels still clung together in their cob formation. And don't sweat the big portion-you'll have the best leftovers in the office the next day.

The word "local" pops up all over Contrisciani's menu, as it does on so many menus now, a not-so-secret password to locavores and food nuts. Local is great and laudable, but flavor and execution matter. Contrisciani scores on both fronts while staying true to his ideals-and keeping prices shockingly reasonable.

Roasted Local Organic Quarter Chicken ($12.99) is nested on a fluffy mass of smashed (also local) redskin potatoes alongside artichoke hearts, roasted red pepper and lemon jus. The chicken is slow-roasted and has the succulence to show it. A pork chop entree ($17.95) wasn't as good. Pork chops are finicky, especially when sliced as thinly as these were. After a promising couple of juicy bites, the meat turned dry and tough as it rested. That disappointment overshadowed an otherwise nice meal-the chops are served on a bed of mushroom farro, and a rich whole-grain mustard cream sauce is drizzled on the perimeter.

Plate's extensive menu has plenty of variety in starters, but overall they weren't as good as the main dishes. Skip the Vegan Garden Minestrone Soup ($4.99), which was bland despite being loaded with fresh veggies. And the wings ($8.99) were more floppy than feisty, with no obvious heat and a mushy exterior either sauced too heavily or left to sit too long after they were cooked.

The Olive Oil Poached Sashimi Tuna ($11.95) is one of Plate's more adventurous items. Pull the tender, chilled slices of the tuna through the accompanying yellow plum tomato vinaigrette or artichoke, fennel and leek confit or basil-orange aioli for fun pops of acidic flavor.

One evening after ordering the cookie plate ($6.50) for dessert, the manager stopped at the table to apologize-the chocolate chip cookies were still in the oven, and it would be a few minutes' delay. I wish this "mistake" on you, too, so that you'll get to remember just how good a fresh-baked cookie can taste. The other cookies, biscotti and almond with pine nuts, paled in comparison. Tiramisu ($5.50) brought full circle Plate's success with Italian methods. Tiramisu is a glorified trifle-just cookies, liqueur, coffee and whipped mascarpone and cream cheese layered in a dish-but at Plate, it was so light it seemed to evaporate.

From the simplest list of ingredients, nothing special on their own, had come something almost magical.